After two years of narrowly missing the NCAA tournament, the Women of Troy have one goal in their third year under USC coach Michael Cooper.
“We need to get to the tournament,” senior guard Ashley Corral said. “We need to show who we are, that we’re as good as those [other] top 25 teams.”
The Women of Troy’s quest for an NCAA tournament bid begins tonight against Fresno State at 5 p.m.
The high expectations, however, aren’t just coming from the team. USC was voted No. 23 in the preseason Associated Press poll, the first time it has been ranked since 2006.
“If you can stay inside the [top] 25, it’s almost an automatic berth into the tournament,” Cooper said. “That’s where we want to eventually end up, so a ranking is definitely good, but now we have to live up to that and win consistently.”
Despite missing out on the NCAA tournament last year, the Women of Troy received an invitation to the 64-team Women’s National Invitational Tournament, where they won five games in a row to reach the championship game before falling to Toledo.
“I had never played in the postseason, and I know none of my teammates had either,” Corral said. “It helped our bodies get used to playing that long of a season.”
USC is ranked second in the preseason Pac-12 media poll, behind Stanford, who reached the Final Four last season and is ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press poll.
The Women of Troy haven’t beat the Cardinal since the 2007-2008 season, but they have high hopes to dethrone the defending conference champions.
“I think we’re going to give a challenge to everyone we play,” Cooper said. “The Pac-12 is not a cakewalk this year. Stanford is the team to knock off the top, and we’re going to give them all that they can handle.”
By the time USC squares off against Stanford, they will have plenty of experience against top-notch competition.
Before they even start conference play, the Women of Troy will have faced six teams that made the NCAA tournament last year.
Those games include a road trip to defending national champion Texas A&M on Dec. 18, and a trip to the Bahamas for a tournament where they will play national runner-up Notre Dame, and either Duke or Gardner-Webb, both of which participated in the tournament last year.
“We have to go win those big games on the road for us to get credit,” Corral said. “It’s a good showing for the committee, and we know what we have to do.”
Though USC faces some tough competition in the early going, it does bring back its core group of players from a year ago. Corral is one of four returning All-Pac-10 honorees for USC. Senior guard Briana Gilbreath earned an Associated Press All-American honorable mention while leading USC in scoring, rebounds, steals and blocks last season.
Fifth-year senior Jacki Gemelos returns at the point, where she earned All-Pac-10 honorable mention and was USC’s third-leading scorer in her first full season after recovering from numerous knee surgeries that plagued her first three years in Los Angeles.
Sophomore forward Cassie Harberts was the only player to start every game last season and was selected to the Pac-10 freshman team after being one of four USC players to average double-digit scoring.
“Look for Cassie to be a little bit more solid in [the post],” Cooper said. “She did a good job last year, but she really worked on the weights [in the offseason] so she should have a little more strength.”
Freshman forward Alexyz Vaioletama is the only new face in the starting lineup, taking the spot of graduate Kari LaPlante. The freshman, listed at 6-foot-1, isn’t as tall as LaPlante, but has been praised by her coaches for her tenacity and athleticism.
“[Vaioletama] is an athletic big that we haven’t seen around here in a long time,” Cooper said. “Fans are going to be very impressed and surprised with the way she’ll play, especially as a freshman.”
Freshmen forward Deanna Calhoun and guards Ariya Crook and Kiki Alofaituli make up the rest of USC’s No. 8 ranked recruiting class.
Junior forward Christina Marinacci could move into the starting lineup at some point, after finishing second on the team in rebounding and fifth in scoring last year.
“This group here is special,” Cooper said. “All of our players definitely took a step forward this year. They finally get what we want to do, what we want to accomplish.”
That attitude is even rubbing off on the newcomers.
“We just need to suck it up, and work hard on and off the court to get to the [tournament],” Vaioletama said. “That’s what our main goal is. My expectations are very high for this team.”