February 18, 2023 

USC defining themselves as a Pac-12 power

How the Trojans meshed into a defensive juggernaut

At the start of the season last November, USC was defined by all of the things we didn’t know about them. How would the Trojans mesh seven new players – all of them transfers – into the program? How would the loss of starting power forward Alissa Pili to Utah via the transfer portal impact the team? How would the stunning shooting of Aaliyah Gayles, USC’s top recruit, who suffered 10 gunshot wounds at a house party in Las Vegas last spring, be navigated?

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How would USC react to the early season absence of head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who would miss nearly all of the preseason after giving birth to her second child? Gottlieb had to figure out how to install an entirely new starting lineup and replace 66 percent of her scoring and be prepared to hand her team over to veteran associate head coach Beth Burns during a critical time of preparation in mid-October.

The rest of the Pac-12 didn’t know what to make of the Trojans either, picking them ninth in the preseason poll. Gottlieb and her team knew something we didn’t.

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“It’s belief, and I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. The kids who came here and those who stayed believed we could be part of making USC relevant again,” Gottlieb said. “We’ve had that common purpose. The season gets long and people get tired, but we keep focused on the vision of what we are here to do and why.”

The realization of that vision is now what defines USC in the nation rankings this week for the first time since 2016. The Trojans are one of the best defensive teams – ranking 10th in scoring defense (54.0), thanks to Burns’ scheme and tough love. After a 1-2 Pac-12 start, the Trojans quickly figured things out and sit at 9-6 with three games to go before they conference tournament, where they still have a shot at one of the four first-round tournament byes, sitting in a fourth-place tie with UCLA and Arizona.

The Trojans have evidence to match the confidence that they can play with the conference’s top teams, no better example than their 55-46 win over Stanford in Los Angeles on January 15. Barring something unforeseen, the Trojans are bound for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.

Friday night’s rematch with the No. 3 Cardinal at Maples Pavilion on Friday night proved the first win was no fluke, with USC falling 50-47 in a game that that was tight to the final shot. The Trojans nearly pulled off another upset, despite playing without sophomore Rayah Marshall, the team’s leading rebounder.

“This team has really just respected each other and taken the time to learn about each other on the court, how to talk to each other and how to trust each other,” said senior Destiny Littleton, who won a national title last year with South Carolina. “If you trust your teammates, it will show on the court.”

 Photo credit: USC Athletics/John McGillen

Littleton, along with fellow senior transfer Kadi Sissoko and sophomore Rayah Marshall, have been leading the way, averaging a combined 42.1 points and 21.3 rebounds a game and are the players, Gottlieb says, who “lock us in.” “They are the players who I can look to in the huddle and say, ‘This is what I need from you,’” Gottlieb said.

While the Trojans have dialed in defensively, they rank 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring a (65.1 ppg) and Gottlieb knows they will need to be better on the offensive end by the time the postseason arrives.

“We are navigating things on the offensive end and trying to find out rhythm and that has continued to evolve,” Gottlieb said. “We obviously want to score more, but we are making sure that we can find our flow. This conference is elite in defensive game-planning and every night, teams are going to stop what you do well. Part of our growth has been that understanding and how we can find a flow in the offense and find our looks.”

Littleton, who has scored in double figures in 21 games this season, is equally proud of the team’s defensive identity. The Trojans also rank in the Top 15 nationally in blocks per game (6th – 5.6 bpg), 3-point percentage defense (11th — 25.7%) and field goal percentage defense (13th‚ 35.3%).

USC has held an opponent under 50 points 13 times this season.

“Honestly, if we hold our opponents to 50 and we score 51, we win,” Littleton said. “Some games, we have been low scoring, and people might think, “I don’t know if they can score enough to beat this team’, but can they score enough to beat us? And I think people underestimate that. Teams have their worst nights against us because of the way we play.”

Friday night was a prime example, with USC holding the Cardinal to the second-lowest scoring total of the year.

Their lowest? Their previous loss against the Trojans in January.

“Stanford is a great team … and this is part of our continued growth,” Gottlieb said. “The big picture is that we have put ourselves in a position to be relevant and we are going to continue on that path.”

The kind of path that defines a program.

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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.

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