March 9, 2023
Littleton leading the “other USC” into the NCAA Tournament
“I just wanted to find the love I had for the game again."
Rarely does a player leave a team that wins a title — as USC’s Destiny Littleton decided to do after two years at South Carolina — to come to another team trying to get themselves into the NCAA Tournament.
The sixth-year senior and San Diego native chose the other USC for her final collegiate season, moving back across the country, closer to home and her support system, to transfer her experience to a team that needed it more.
That needed her more. And that could give her what she needed.
Littleton’s personal story is one of a child who knew too well about drug addiction, limited resources and ultimately the embrace of a community and a coach and his family who were willing to take her in and call her their own.
Her basketball story is one of business that has felt unfinished for too long.
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“I just wanted to find the love I had for the game again,” Littleton said. “To just get back to ‘high school Destiny.’ ‘High school Destiny’ loved the game and had fun each and every day and I’m definitely getting back to that. Winning has been the cherry on top.”
A 2017 McDonald’s All-American and California’s all-time leading scorer in girls basketball with 4,300 points as a prep star (averaging 42.7 points a game in her senior season), she began her career at Texas as one of the nation’s top recruits, heading to Austin after initially committing to USC. But when Trojans’ head coach Cynthia Cooper, with whom she had developed a close relationship, left the program, Littleton moved on as well to the Longhorns.
She stayed for two seasons and played in 41 games (with just 12 starts) before heading to Dawn Staley’s program. She sat out the 2019-20 season due to (the old) NCAA transfer rules and had surgery to repair stress fractures in both feet.
Littleton played two seasons in Columbia, appearing in 59 games and coming off the bench for the 2021-02 team that won the national title. Littleton saw limited minutes, getting only seven minutes of playing time over the final four games of the NCAA title run. She averaged eight minutes a game, scoring 2.6 points and 1.3 rebounds.
She also admitted earlier this season that while she was at South Carolina, she suffered from depression.
When the afterglow of the championship run ended, Littleton knew she wanted to be closer to home. And, with her final season of eligibility, she wanted one more chance at a bigger role.
Lindsay Gottlieb, meanwhile, wanted a playmaking anchor for her Trojans’ team. The coach found one. She has called Littleton’s arrival “serendipity.”
Gottlieb said that she sensed in her first conversation with Littleton, after she entered the transfer portal that she was both conflicted about whether to keep playing, but also not done with the game.
“She had just won the national championship, she was tired, she was thinking about going to medical school,” Gottlieb said. “In our first conversation, I really just listened, but I could still hear a desire and love of basketball. And I said to her, ‘What I’m hearing is that you aren’t done yet, and there is something left for you. And I told her what it could look like here. I knew I needed leadership and I know the Destiny of 4,000 points in high school.”
Littleton showed up in Los Angeles as one of seven transfers on the Trojans’ roster, as Gottlieb looks to put USC back on the national map.
Littleton was a key part of that plan and she has ended up being a key part of its implementation.
The Trojans (21-9) are NCAA Tournament-bound after finishing in a third-place tie in the Pac-12 at 11-7 with UCLA and Arizona. They have their highest win total since the 2017-18 season. Littleton finished the regular season as the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.8 points a game, leading the team with 110 assists and 53 3-pointers. She leads the team in minutes played and is shooting nearly 88 percent from the free-throw line. Over the last 12 games, she has bumped her scoring average to 15.8 points, including four 20-point-plus games in that span.
And she has been a leader, if only for one season. She’s probably been a leader for longer, truth be told, but it’s been a bit hidden, Littleton admits.
“Prior to this year, I took a step back in the fact that I wasn’t a captain at my other schools. I had a reserve role,” Littleton said. “This year has been a really big leap for me. I’ve had to not only show through actions, but definitely with my voice and understanding that my teammates respect what I say and that carries weight.”
Gottlieb said that Littleton is the “linchpin” of the team this season.
“Her ability to play the point and the 2, it’s a guards game in a lot of ways and we need her presence on the floor to be a good basketball team,” Gottlieb said. “Her teammates understand that she’s coming from a national championship team. Everyone else came here in search of winning and she was coming in search of a new experience, and they respect that. And they also have a lot of respect for her story, what she’s overcome, and her voice on the court.”
During the summer, Littleton felt like the Trojans were a collection of players in the same gear more than teammates.
“We had moments where we were just like, man, we really don’t know each other,” Littleton said. “But we’ve had some hard moments and some close games to figure out who each person is in different circumstances. And I think we’ve done a really good job with that.
“This team has just really respected each other and taken the time to learn each other on the court and how to talk to each other and just put trust in one another.”
Littleton, who is getting her Masters degree in communications management and has a successful side hustle as a motivational speaker telling her story of resilience and perseverance, said getting the Trojans “back into the NCAA conversation” was one of her goals for the season.
She can check it off her list. Right next to Final Fours and an NCAA championship. Now she is hoping to play professionally again. And maybe after that, medical school.
“This year is everything I wanted it to be and then some,” Littleton said. “I’m just having fun with the game and appreciating every time I get to step out on the floor.
“I’m excited to see what USC is going to be next year. I think the foundation is starting to form and that is going to carry on when I’m not here.”
Written by Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.