Expectations high for fortified USC

The first season of the Michael Cooper era didn’t go quite as planned.

Despite posting a 19-12 record and advancing to the Pac-10 conference semifinals, the USC women’s basketball team was not selected to play in the NCAA tournament. The snub left a bitter taste in the team’s mouth, which declined an invitation to participate in the less prestigious National Invitational Tournament.

“It was a little heartbreaking, but we put the decision in the selection committee’s hands and we’re not doing that this year,” said junior guard Ashley Corral.

On the rise · Senior guard Jacki Gemelos shoots over a UCLA defender last season. The senior helped lead the Women of Troy to a 19-12 record in 2009, creating high expectations to be set for the upcoming season. - Tim Tran | Daily Trojan

This season, the team expects more out of itself. Cooper, in his second year at the helm, said the players and staff have more familiarity with each other.

“I think as a team and as coaches we know each other [better],” Cooper said. “They understand our philosophy now, so I’m looking for bigger and brighter things.”

Any improvement the team sees will result from an intense off-season spent training. Senior guard Jacki Gemelos said every player on the team stayed in Los Angeles this summer to work on her game, and junior guard Briana Gilbreath said the team used last season as motivation during the off-season.

“The fact that we need to determine our own fate this year is what made us work so hard,” Gilbreath said.

To get there, the Women of Troy will face a number of challenges.

Just reaching last season’s win total will be an accomplishment. The Women of Troy compiled a record of 12-6 in conference play last season, a mark that will be difficult to duplicate. Making matters worse, the Women of Troy lost several important contributors this season, including guard Hailey Dunham and guard/forward Aarika Hughes.

“Aarika was our biggest vocal leader, so a lot of us have tried to pick up that slack,” Gemelos said. “It isn’t easy replacing her.”

Still, the team returns its core group of players. The team leaders are Corral (15.1 ppg, 5.0 apg) and Gilbreath (15.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg), who both earned All Pac-10 honors as sophomores. Gilbreath was also named the conference’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year.

“I’m going to go out there and stop anybody who needs to be stopped,” Gilbreath said. “Helping out my teammates on defense and offense — whatever I need to do.”

Other key contributors include senior center Kari LaPlante and Gemelos, who has struggled with injuries since arriving at USC five years ago. The senior guard, who said her game is starting to come back as she returns from a fourth knee surgery, will be counted on to provide the Women of Troy with another playmaker in the backcourt.

“With Ashley and I being creators I think it’s going to open things up for everybody else,” she said.

Sophomore forward Christina Marinacci also returns with a year under her belt after receiving Pac-10 All-Freshman Honorable Mention.

Along with these players, the Women of Troy brought in a nationally ranked recruiting class that Cooper said he believes will make an immediate impact.

“[Freshman forward Cassie] Harberts will definitely come in and contribute with some size underneath and a basketball IQ that is out of this world,” Cooper said. “[Freshman guard] Len’Nique Brown will give us a legitimate backup point guard that can create some offense for us in transition.”

Cooper is not the only one impressed with the new additions. Gemelos expects Harberts, one of the top recruits in the country, to contend for Pac-10 Freshman of the Year.

“I think [Cassie] is that good,” she said. “It’s really nice to have another post presence inside for us guards.”

Along with Harberts and Brown, the team also welcomes new faces in forward Desiree Bradley, center Lauren White and forward Thaddesia Southall.

“We have a lot of great, new talent coming in and they should mold well with the team,” LaPlante said.

With plenty of able-bodied freshmen and a healthy roster to begin the season, the Women of Troy should be able to utilize their depth. Last year, injuries plagued the team and forced the starters to log heavy minutes. Corral and Gilbreath both averaged more than 30 minutes per game, and Corral played the entire game on numerous occasions.

“The main issue was us being healthy last year,” LaPlante said. “We had so many injuries, but now we have everybody coming back.”

Redshirt sophomore guard Stefanie Gilbreath has also dealt with injuries during her career, having undergone three knee surgeries. She is expected to make her USC debut early this season, and the person most excited to see her back on the court is her younger sister, Briana.

“It’s going to mean the world to me,” Briana Gilbreath said. “I can’t wait to get on the court with her again. Every time we’re out there together it’s like magic, so I’m excited.”

The Women of Troy will also have some new coaches on the sidelines as well in Laura Beeman and Cooper’s son, Michael Cooper II. Cooper said he wanted a staff that he was comfortable with and could teach the players.

“I’ve coached with Laura Beeman before and she’s from a winning program at Mt. Sac,” he said. “She’s been around a college atmosphere and I think she’ll come in and add some credibility as a coach that knows the Xs and Os.”

With plenty of change in the offseason, the Women of Troy now get a new start to their season, where they can work to slowly build upon last year’s success.

Despite all that happened last year, the Women of Troy look poised to improve upon last season and make a strong push for a Pac-10 title and a NCAA tournament bid. Still, the players know they cannot overlook any opponent.

“We need to win games we should win,” LaPlante said. “We’ve put in a lot of work this summer so we control our own destiny.”

USC kicks off its season Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. with an exhibition game against Biola. The team’s home opener is Nov. 12 at 1 p.m. against Gonzaga at the Galen Center.