January 10, 2022
Takeaways from USC upset of No. 4 Arizona in Pac-12 home opener
An impressive win for a young team looking to establish itself
LOS ANGELES — It was a flashback to last season with no fans in the arena so the cheers and energy from the USC Trojans bench were audible all game long as they knocked off the visiting Arizona Wildcats, 76-67.
Arizona came into the game as the No. 4 ranked team in the country and one of the only remaining undefeated teams at 11-0 and 1-0 in Pac-12 Conference play. But the Trojans were up to the challenge. It was a balanced effort for USC with all eight players scoring at least six points. They shot 45.5 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from three-point range and they stuck with the Wildcats every step of the way.
To top it off, USC had just come off a long COVID-19 related pause this past Friday in a 71-58 loss to Colorado. Prior to that, the last time they took the court was back on Dec. 18 against Texas Southern. This game against Arizona was initially scheduled for Dec. 31 but was pushed back due to COVID issues within the Trojans program.
After the game, USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb stressed the importance of the win and what it meant for the program moving forward as they enter conference play.
“In the lifeblood of a season, you have to respond to things. We were off for so long with so many of our players sick. We fight to come back, we lose a tough one at Colorado and we completely embraced the opportunity in front of us,” Gottlieb said. “It’s not easy sometimes to look in the mirror and see what you can do better and figure out how you want to improve things. The way we did that against the opponent we did it against, I think that makes it significant.”
At the beginning of the season, the Trojans had one of the most talented frontcourts on paper. Returning players Alissa Pili, Jordyn Jenkins and Angel Jackson along with freshman Rayah Marshall and Clarice Akunwafo looked like they could be a real force in the Pac-12. USC was without Jackson’s services against Arizona, but the rest of the group was a big factor in the win.
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Jenkins was a force down low, finishing with 14 points, 12 of them coming in the second half as USC kept pace with the Wildcats. She scored on an array of moves in the paint and was able to draw fouls and get herself to the free-throw line. She also added seven rebounds and three assists.
Akunwafo was a strong presence defensively, drawing the assignment of guarding Arizona’s star forward Cate Reese. Reese still finished with 29 points but the Trojan frontline, Akunwafo in particular, made her work for every point she scored. She only shot 9-21 and had seven turnovers.
After the game, Gottlieb had high praise for Akunwafo and the frontcourt’s effort as a whole.
“Kate is one of the best players in the conference and 29 points is a lot, but to have to take 21 shots and you take away the free throws, we made her life tough and forced her into some turnovers. I think the collective effort of our group to execute the game plan was huge,” Gottlieb said. “I thought Clarice really stepped up particularly on the defensive end. Clarice is going to be a star in this league and her ability to just step in and play her role right now is huge.”
It was a pivotal moment for the Trojans, who were 7-4 coming into the game and in their first season under Gottlieb. The team has a lot of young players on the roster and out of the eight players that Gottlieb played against Arizona, three of them were freshmen.
They showed incredible poise and toughness down the stretch as they pulled away late in the fourth quarter. They tightened up their defense, held Arizona to 36 percent shooting from the field, 27.3 percent from three-point range and executed to perfection in crunch time. They were able to get junior sharpshooter Alyson Miura open for three a couple of times in the final two minutes that effectively put the game away.
As conference play gets underway, Gottlieb is encouraged by what she’s seen and believes this team has a fairly high ceiling.
“I’ve said the whole time that our growth trajectory probably should be higher than anyone else’s in the conference because we’re new. We had more growing to do in terms of learning what we want,” Gottlieb said. “We were disappointed with the outcome in Colorado and the way we approached the next two days is the most telling thing, in a positive way about where we can go. Plays happened on the court that just happened because we’re connected and we really bought into our purpose and I thought that was the best thing from today.”