Women’s basketball takes to the road

Off to its best start since the 2004-2005 season, the USC women’s basketball team is poised to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.

The Women of Troy (12-4, 4-1) had a strong case for an at-large bid last season, but were unexpectedly omitted from the field of 64. According to USC coach Michael Cooper, last season’s snub has helped fuel the team this season.

Conference play · Senior guard Jacki Gemelos and the rest of the women’s basketball team will face Cal and No. 4 Stanford this week. - Tim Tran | Daily Trojan

“We want something that we didn’t get last year, and that’s the opportunity to play with 63 other teams [in the NCAA tournament],” Cooper said.

Standing in their way is a road trip to the Bay Area, where two of the top teams in the Pac-10 reside. Today, the Women of Troy take on California, a physical team that should test USC’s recently discovered rebounding prowess.

Last season, opponents outrebounded USC by more than four rebounds per game.

This year, those numbers are reversed, and the difference could be the addition of freshman forward Cassie Harberts.

The star freshman totaled 30 rebounds in the two games against the Oregon schools and has provided USC with another interior presence to complement senior center Kari LaPlante.

“She’s starting to find her way through it,” Cooper said. “I think Cassie hit the wall a couple of weeks ago, but she’s starting to get her second wind.”

Whether that will help USC take down Cal (10-6, 2-3) remains to be seen, though junior guard Ashley Corral said it would come down to defense.

“Everything starts with defense for us,” Corral said. “If we can get a stop that will lead to our offense.”

Cal notched 24 wins and finished fourth in the conference last season, but the big test for USC this trip is a showdown Saturday against No. 4 Stanford, which has won nine of the past 10 conference titles.

The Cardinal (14-2, 5-0) beat USC by a combined score of 159-99 last season and return junior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike, the reigning Pac-10 conference player of the year.

History aside, Corral said the Stanford game would come down to execution.

“We have to take care of the little things,” she said. “They’re a very smart team. They’re not the most athletic team, but they do everything perfectly.”

Joining Ogwumike and a heralded freshman class is a deep and experienced team that stormed to an undefeated conference record last season.

The Cardinal outscored conference opponents by 24 points per game last season and added the country’s top recruit, freshman forward Chiney Ogwumike, to the mix.

“We’re not worried about what other teams [do],” Corral said. “We have to focus on ourselves.”

Despite its 4-1 conference record, a number of teams are nipping at the Trojans’ heels in the conference standings, and Cooper has stressed the importance of his team continuing its early-season momentum.

“There are a lot of good teams in the Pac-10,” he said. “The Arizona schools are right there. So is Cal. Every game is a [measuring stick for us].”