USC eyeing a strong start in opening matchups

Junior guard Kyra White shields the ball from a defender.
Junior guard Kyra White led the Trojans in assists with 6 in her 15 minutes of play against Antelope Valley Saturday at the Galen Center. (Talha Rafique | Daily Trojan)

New Head Coach Lindsay Gottlieb will make her USC debut Thursday against Hawaii in the season opener. Gottlieb worked as an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers for two years following eight seasons as the head coach at UC Berkeley.

After spending time at the professional level, Gottlieb has a fresh outlook on the role she plays as a college basketball team’s head coach.

“In college, I’m like the CEO of a small company,” said Gottlieb said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “I have so much [to do] that I have to make sure to carve out the time to do all the basketball that I want to do to make us as good as we can be.”

One of the things that Gottlieb wants the team to embody early in the season is toughness.

“This is definitely a team that doesn’t lack talent but, in past years, maybe hasn’t been able to persevere through every tough time as well as you need to be an NCAA Tournament team,” Gottlieb said. “I’m just looking to see our ability to be tough and gritty.”

USC has an opportunity to settle into the new system that Gottlieb has implemented. Hawaii went 9-8 last season and suffered a blowout 83-56 loss in its opening game against San Diego this season.

The Trojans’ main concern in Thursday’s game will be Hawaii’s freshman guard Daejah Phillips, who had a solid performance in the season opener with 20 of the team’s 53 points and 4 rebounds. 

The home game against Hawaii will mark the first time since the 2019-2020 season that fans will be in attendance. Many Trojans have not played in front of a crowd at Galen Center, including graduate student forward Jordan Sanders who transferred from UC Irvine ahead of last season.

“It’s going to be really exciting,” Sanders said. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about since I got here last year.”

USC’s first road game will come against Virginia, which is coached by former USC player Tina Thompson. After only five games, Virginia canceled its 2020-2021 season due to an increase in coronavirus within the program and various injuries that left the team with few players available.

Virginia and USC met two seasons ago when the Trojans defeated the Cavaliers 59-49. Two of the Trojans’ three leading scorers from that game are no longer with the program.

One of those three players was guard Endyia Rogers, who led USC in points per game last season and transferred to Oregon this offseason. Sanders is next in line as she returns to USC’s squad this season as a graduate student and candidate to lead the team in scoring. 

“We just seem a lot more together this year,” Sanders said. “We’re ready to go right off the bat.”

Junior forward Alissa Pili, who had a limited sophomore season due to injury, is set to be a key scoring option for USC as well. She averaged 11 points and 3.8 rebounds per game last season, but her freshman-season averages of 16.3 points and 8 rebounds per game represent what she can produce when fully healthy.

USC faces Hawaii at 7 p.m. at the Galen Center in the team’s first regular season game Nov. 11.