USC takes flight, Stanford reassesses after weekend upset

Clarice Akunwafo blocks Cameron Brink’s shot. USC Athletics photo.

Not long after they could be heard screaming in their locker room, USC players and their coach brought their palpable excitement into Sunday’s post-game press conference with reporters.

The Trojans had just knocked off No. 2 Stanford, 55-46, for the first time since the Pac-12 Tournament in 2014, as well as not having beaten a team ranked that highly since 2008.

Guard Destiny Littleton, who lead the effort with 18 points and 6 assists, spoke excitedly about the Cardinal’s rally from behind in the third quarter, when they closed their deficit to 3, on three different occasions.

“I knew this was going to be a possession game – I knew just because we jumped out on them in the first quarter,” Littleton said. “And so when they made their run, I got (her teammates) together and said ‘Look, we’re fine, just keep doing what we’re doing. Don’t take crazy shots, don’t take quick shots.”

Coach Lindsay Gottlieb credited her team’s composure throughout the matchup – especially down the final stretch.

“I think that I told them…’make plays where you can make plays,’” Gottlieb said. “We knew it was going to be a hard game for us. We weren’t perfect the whole time, but we stayed within our mentality, and I think that was incredible. And I felt it from everyone on the bench.”

The victory came exactly a week after a painful one-point loss to crosstown rivals UCLA, which Gottlieb said “tore her up.” Friday USC beat Cal by 20 points, and against Stanford, they lead for all but 34 seconds, when they were tied. Gottlieb said players accepted her challenge to bounce back from their loss.

“I thought we just really took care of business this weekend,” she said. “I thought we executed the game plan, were super-tough, and made plays the whole game.”

The Trojans’ domination of the Cardinal, who until the weekend had lost just one game on the year, was overwhelmingly defensive. They held the visitors to a season-low 4 points in the first quarter on 20 percent shooting, and 19 percent from the three-point line for the entire game. USC committed just 7 turnovers, while forcing Stanford into 14, and they out-battled the 2021 national champions on most every possession.

Just as impressive was the fact that the Trojans, riddled with injuries, pulled off the takedown with just 7 athletes seeing floor time. Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, with a full roster, progressively inserted new combinations as the team’s energy continued to remain stagnant, until 13 had logged minutes by the final buzzer.

Okako Adika added 11 points and 11 rebounds for USC. Cameron Brink scored 11 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for Stanford, while Haley Jones had 8 points and 12 rebounds.

VanDerveer pointed to the lack of shot-making and excessive turnovers for the loss, but also acknowledged her team’s poor overall performance.

“I don’t know that we could (have done) anything any worse,” she said. “This has to be a rock bottom just in terms of execution, offensively. Lack of screening….they got to the free throw line 26 times.”

Okako Adika blows by the Stanford defense. USC Athletics photo.

For the Trojans, who are now receiving votes in the AP top 25 poll, the upset represents a big step in the development of an overhauled roster that includes seven graduate transfers from schools all over the country. Gottlieb said the patience of coaches and athletes to weave it all together is beginning to pay dividends.

“I do feel like we’re doing a better job of figuring out our roles and our identities,” she said. “You just need everyone being a good version of themselves, and I think that that’s what we’re rounding into, and that’s what helped us get the win today.”

Littleton said her teammates who couldn’t suit up played a big part in the win with their sideline scouting.

“Every time I came to the bench they were telling me, ‘keep shooting your shots there,’ or ‘this look is over there.’ They were telling me things I wasn’t seeing on the floor,” she said. “Our team is really connected. We want to win for each other, and we want each other to win.”

USC, now 13-4,won their first nine games before dropping two in a row. With their growth spurt, the team seems to be getting into the swing of Pac-12 play, for which Gottlieb said “every weekend is kind of like a new lifetime.”

“I think it’s because of what we’re doing right. It’s not people having a bad night,” Gottlieb said. “It’s (that) we’re imposing our will. We’ve been a good defensive team all year, but the competition is rising, and I think we’re rising, and really believing in what we can do on the floor.”

The Cardinal, who unleashed a fiery second-half surge in their win over UCLA Friday, looked comparatively passive against the Trojans, who bettered them in the blocks, steals, assists and fast break categories with attack-style play.

VanDerveer was acutely aware of the discrepancy.

“I thought USC played very well. They’re very aggressive. They worked they worked really hard. We we turned the ball over too much. We didn’t shoot the ball well enough,” she said. “We didn’t play well, and we were outplayed, out-hustled, and that’s just the nature of the conference. You’ve got to come out and play hard.”

“We have to want to be grittier,” she said. “We have to be a much more competitive, aggressive, grittier team. And…..maybe it’s taking better shots.”

Though not dealing with the roster turnover numbers that the Trojans have, Stanford saw three key starters graduate last year – one of whom was drafted into the WNBA. VanDerveer said the team now needs new emotional leaders.

“For the last four years, we’ve had people that played extremely hard, and that’s Anna Wilson, Lexie and Lacie Hull. And they really carried us,” VanDerveer said. “So we need people on our team now (to) play with that passion, that aggressiveness, that competitiveness.”

“If we (do), we’ll do better and if we don’t, this will be the outcome.”

VanDerveer said the Cardinal’s rebounding has carried them lately, while their offense has sputtered. More than that, the team needs to handle the details.

“We need people to do things that we’re not doing, whether it’s screening or getting on the O boards, knocking down shots,” she said. “We’ve got to get to the free throw line better.”

But though there is work to be done, the Hall of Fame coach is optimistic.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for people on our team. And I think that this is just a time (for players to) say ‘alright, hey, I’m gonna take advantage of this. This is what I’m going to do.'”

USC travels north this weekend to take on the Washington schools, while Stanford hosts No. 8 Utah and No. 24 Colorado.