USC aims to improve Pac-12 standing in homestand

After two consecutive hard-fought losses at the hands of crosstown rivals UCLA, the Women of Troy will stay at home to host Arizona and Arizona State this weekend. USC currently has a 15-8 record, including 5-7 against Pac-12 opponents while Arizona has a 6-17 record with 2-10 against conference opponents and No. 25 Arizona State has a 17-7 record with an 8-4 conference record.

Junior guard Aliyah Mazyck (center) put up a valiant effort against UCLA on Monday, scoring a game-high 21 points on 4-for-11 3-point shooting. Despite her efforts, USC fell to UCLA 70-84, marking two straight losses to the Bruins. Emily Smith | Daily Trojan

“Our mindset is great,” head coach Mark Trakh said. “We started out 0-3 and we went to 3-3, we lost two games and then we won two games, so I think the goal is to make .500 in the Pac-12 and go to the postseason tournament. I trust these kids. I’m very, very excited by what they’ve shown me this year.”

Arizona State will come to the Galen Center first on Friday night. The Sun Devils have powered to a strong  start despite losing one of their key players, guard Sabrina Haines to an ACL injury in December, due to the team’s balance and depth. Junior Kianna Ibis leads the Sun Devils with 13 points per game on efficient shooting percentages of 50 percent shooting, 41.9 percent from downtown and 80 percent from the line. Guards Courtney Ekmark and Robbi Ryan and forward Jamie Ruden shore up the scoring with averages of 10.1, 9.5 and 10.0, respectively, and all three players are capable shooters from deep. Center Charnea Johnson-Chapman leads the team in rebounding with 7.2 per game. With such balanced team members who know their roles and contribute equally, Arizona State poses a challenge for any team to play.

“They play a very aggressive defense,” Trakh said. “They like to come out and pressure so we gotta handle their pressure and they run their sets really, really well, so we [have to] come out fresh and we have to defend their sets. I think that’s the main things: handle their man-to-man pressure, they’ll play 10 people, they’ll rotate every couple minutes so they like to keep their kids fresh. We’re not as deep, so that’s going to be where the challenge is going to pose in a 40-minute game.”

The other Arizona team will come on Sunday afternoon, but compared to the Sun Devils, the Wildcats have struggled this season. The Wildcats are led by guard JaLea Bennett with 14.6 points per game and Sam Thomas with 10 points and 7.8 rebounds. Guard Lucia Alonso and forward Kat Wright are both capable shooters, with Alonso notably averaging 42.7 percent from deep. However, the Wildcats are terribly inefficient as a team with 36.6 percent shooting overall, including 33.0 percent from 3-point range. The Wildcats are also similar to the Trojans in rebounding averages which could be a key focus in the matchup as the Wildcats will pit Thomas and forward Destiny Graham (6.6 rebounds per game) against Trojans senior forward Kristen Simon. However, USC should look to pick up a win on Sunday against the struggling Wildcats.

“They just fight, in a year where they got a really great recruiting class coming in next year so I think they’re just loose and they’re playing hard and they’re well coached, so I think it’s a question of focus because they’re so capable of beating anyone in the conference,” Trakh said.

Despite two losses against UCLA, the Trojans competed well in the two games and they hope that energy and effort will carry over into this weekend’s matchups. They were down early in both game, but USC fought back valiantly, cutting double-digit deficits to a fighting chance in both games before UCLA built their lead back up. The team’s relentless effort to climb back within distance of UCLA warranted praise from the Trojans’ head coach.

“They played the No. 9 team in the country with probably the best point guard in the country and I felt the kids played a competitive game,” Trakh said. “It was an 8-point game in the fourth quarter at their place and it was a 1-point deficit with four minutes remaining at our place. Everybody we play, it’s been a competitive game and it’s a game where we had a chance to win it in the fourth quarter so I like that competitive spirit the kids have. They won’t give up, they’ll never think they’re out of the game.”

USC’s defense has been stifling so far this season as their zone defense has dramatically altered the pace of the game to be much slower, something that UCLA coach Cori Close admitted to be a factor in hampering UCLA’s high-pace offense. Another key pointer to watch for will be foul trouble as USC’s starters were peppered with fouls in its slugfest against UCLA, forcing Trakh to play the reserves while keeping its starters glued to the bench. As USC does not boast a deep bench, it has relied on heavy minutes from the starters for most, if not all, of their production on a nightly basis and the starters will have to be careful on the defensive end to avoid foul troubles.

“All year we’ve stayed out of foul trouble,” Trakh said. “So we gotta get back to basics: not fouling. We can’t afford to foul because of our lack of depth so we can’t foul. Our defense has been good at times and it’s also been suspect at times but it’s been good more than it’s been suspect. We just gotta regroup and get ready for the game.”

USC hosts Arizona State on Friday at 7 p.m. before playing Arizona on Sunday at 1 p.m. Both games can be streamed through USC’s live stream which can be found on the Pac-12 Network site.