Late free throws save Trojans

Behind two clutch free throws from sophomore guard Ariya Crook with less than a second to play, the USC women’s basketball team was able to extend its winning streak to a season-high four games with a 61-59 home win against Washington State on Sunday afternoon.

The Women of Troy (7-8, 4-0) were able to overcome a poor first-half shooting performance, converting on only 31.3 percent from the field during the first 20 minutes. Ultimately however, they defeated the Cougars and stayed atop the Pac-12 standings alongside rival UCLA.

The Women of Troy, who are off to their best conference start since 2005, had a 59-56 lead with 20 seconds remaining when the Cougar’s Lia Galdeira came down the court and nailed an off-balance 3-point shot with four seconds to go. After a USC timeout, the Cougar’s Ireti Amojo was called for a foul with 0.8 seconds left to send Crook to the line, where she nailed two free throws to put the game in the victory column for the Women of Troy.

“I was honestly very shocked when they fouled me on that last play and was even more surprised that it was called,” Crook said. “We huddled together and my team believed in me to hit at least one free throw to win the game.”

Crook had 14 points and a season-high nine rebounds in the win, while junior captain Cassie Harberts recorded her fifth double-double of the young season with 18 points and 10 rebounds. The team had a strong performance on the boards, out-rebounding the Cougars 49-31. Washington State (5-10, 1-3) was led by sophomore guard Tia Presley, who had 18 points at halftime, but finished with 25 points after notching only seven points in the last 20 minutes. Galdeira added 14 points of her own to the Cougar scoring, as well.

USC struggled throughout the first half, missing its first 10 shots from the field, and didn’t get its first field goal until a Crook 3-pointer at 14:30. The two teams played back and forth until the Cougars mounted a 13-2 run to take a 30-20 lead. That was countered by an 8-2 Trojan run to close out the half, down by only four at 32-28.

Very much like the first half, the second half was a seesaw battle and USC was finally able to take its first lead since the nine-minute mark of the first half with a Crook free throw at 14:25.

“In the second half, we played a lot more inside-out basketball with a lot of post entries and drives to the baskets which allowed us to get easier shots and get to the free throw line instead of relying on jump shots from the perimeter,” Harberts said.

The Women of Troy then used their size to their advantage by pounding the ball in the paint, notably by 6-foot-4 junior Kate Oliver, who would help the team get its largest lead of the game at 55-49 with 4:27 remaining. Oliver was one of three Trojan players in double figures with 10 points.

“For me to have Kate out there for most of the game, our chemistry is just going to continue to build and build,” Harberts said.

USC lived from getting to the free-throw line in the second half, making 14-18 free throws and 20-24 overall. Along with getting to the line, defense played a crucial role in USC’s success in the second half, as they held the Cougars to just 22.6 percent shooting from the field — a stark contrast to 39.4 percent in the first half.

After finishing off a two-game home stand with two crucial wins, the Women of Troy will now travel up to Northern California to play Cal on Thursday, followed by Stanford on Sunday.