Alexander: USC women’s basketball team isn’t scared by an early deficit

LOS ANGELES — The Pac-12 women’s basketball schedule is a beast, and nobody gets through it unscathed. USC is right in the middle of the fray, and maybe the events of Friday night at Galen Center are an example of why.

The Women of Troy trailed 20-8 after one period, against an Oregon team that clubbed them, 73-45, on New Year’s Day in Eugene and hadn’t lost to USC since January of 2016.

No problem. The Trojans players came to the sideline, looked each other in the eyes, and proceeded to take the fight to the Ducks in a 56-51 victory, a display of resilience and grit that has kept them in the mix in a crazily good conference.

Going into Sunday’s games, Utah and Stanford are the leaders at 11-2, and the Trojans (7-5 in conference, 18-6 overall) have already knocked off Stanford, then No. 2 in the country. Colorado is 10-3 and the Buffaloes were ranked 25th when the Trojans beat them, in Boulder. UCLA and Arizona are 8-5 and both in the Top 25, and USC lost two excruciating games to the Bruins and an even more gut-grinding double-overtime game to the Wildcats last weekend. And at Utah, then No. 9, USC was down 20 with 3:27 left in the third and cut the margin to six with 3:09 left in the game before the Utes pulled away.

The latest ESPN Bracketology projections have eight teams from the Pac-12 in the 68-team women’s NCAA Tournament field, and Stanford and Utah hosting regionals as top-four seeds. But the Trojans will be there, somewhere. And at this rate, they’ll make someone very uncomfortable, maybe multiple someones, because they’ve seen hard and come out the other side.

“Games go down to the wire,” said guard Destiny Littleton, the graduate transfer from South Carolina who has become the leader of this group (and who played all 40 minutes Friday night). “Every single game is a really tough game in the Pac-12. Like our last game was double overtime (an 81-75 loss to Arizona last Sunday). We were dog-tired. We were just trying to make plays, make the right plays.

“And, you know, it happens like that. Sometimes you’re on the winning side and sometimes you’re not. But at the end of the day, the games come so fast in this league … you blink your eye and we’re ready to play another game. So we have the ability to flip the page, you know, for our two or three days of prep for the next team. And I think in the Pac you have to be able to do that.”

The first game with Oregon was the anomaly, a game in which Coach Lindsay Gottlieb felt the Trojans didn’t look like themselves.

“I couldn’t be more proud of how we responded (Friday) because it wasn’t like it came all of a sudden,” she said. “It wasn’t like, okay, we’re a different team out here and we’re just going to win this game. We had to really battle and get rid of any negative thoughts in our heads. It was like, now we’re playing, we can do this. And I saw the belief grow in them little by little.”

There were a number of heroes. Littleton had 18 points, and so did forward Okako Adkia, who contributed four 3-pointers and also grabbed 11 rebounds. Rayah Marshall had 11 rebounds as well, and that particular hustle stat might have been an indication of how the game turned. In the first quarter, Oregon outrebounded USC 13-10, with 6-foot-8 Ducks center Phillipina Kyei grabbing six. Over the rest of the game, USC outrebounded Oregon 34-25, and the Trojans also had 10 steals and seven blocked shots and outscored Oregon 17-7 off turnovers.

“Sometimes when a team jumps out on you, you lose a little bit of confidence and things start to spiral,” Littleton said. “But we didn’t lose any confidence. … The past game was in the back of our heads and we were like, ‘We’re not going to go out like that.’”

These are the sort of experiences that toughen players and unite a team, and they can absolutely make a difference when March comes around. It’s even more crucial for a team like the Trojans, who have seven transfers and also had their head coach out on maternity leave early in the season, all of which contributed to what seems to have been an extended getting-to-know-you stage.

“We’re older, more experienced, but we’re not experienced with one another,” Gottlieb said. “We’ve had to go through battles throughout the course of the year to figure out who we can and who we want to be. And I think it would have been easier (Friday night) to kind of roll over, like, ‘Well, we’ll get one Sunday.’ And no one had that mentality.”

I asked Gottlieb at what point she felt resilience and that grit kicking in.

“I think our toughness and our defensive tenacity was on display from the beginning of the year,” she said. “But the season is long and it challenges you in different ways. And we just came off of a double-overtime loss. And I think as coaches, you have to kind of, you know, keep reinvesting and reinvesting into what the mentality needs to be because it’s easy, right, in the heat of the season for anyone or group to kind of lose focus or get off course.

“I think this team has always had toughness and tenacity. But you learn throughout the season how you respond to hard things. And I think that’s what this week really showed.”

The benefits should come in March. USC isn’t ranked, but its NET rating of 28 going into the week figures to put it squarely in the tournament mix. Knocking off Stanford last month didn’t hurt, although the rematch on the Cardinal’s floor comes up next week.

“We came from, I don’t know, being ranked last basically in the Pac-12 to now, we’re fighting for a top-four spot and we’re just putting the nation on notice,” Littleton said. “Each and every day these girls come in and there’s no quit. You know, we compete, we come out here, we don’t care if we’re ranked, we don’t care who we’re playing. And I think that is more than being ranked number one or having won before. Because in order to get there, you have to have a sense of, hey, we’ve never been there, but we’ve got to come together and play. And I think that’s what my teammates do each and every day.”

Going into Sunday’s game against Oregon State, there are five games left before the conference tournament. It’s not going to get any easier, but USC seems prepared for the challenge.

USC women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb confers with Rayah Marshall during a game last season. This season’s squad has already knocked off then-No. 2 Stanford and looks capable of making noise in the NCAA Tournament. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

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