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USC's Defense Earns a Road Win: Does USC Have Enough Upside to Challenge Stanford?

Shortly after the University of Southern California's 69-65 victory over the University of Washington, Swish Appeal photographer Craig Bennett made a bold statement that he's ready to stand behind.

"I think they will win the Pac-10 tourney," said Bennett.

If someone were to supplant Stanford University as Pac-10 tournament champions -- a tournament they've won for the last three seasons and 6 of 8 since the tournament began in 2002 -- winning on the road is a good start.

"Road games are the hardest games to win, no matter who you're playing," said USC guard Ashley Corral. "It's hard to come up to the Northwest and win games no matter where you are. And I just think it takes a different focus than it does at home."

Corral grabbed the headlines with her game changing performance in the second half, finishing with 19 points on 7-11 shooting and going 5-7 from the three point line.

HeraldNet: UW women lose to USC
USC’s Ashley Corral, a former Washington prep star who moved from Snohomish to Vancouver in the sixth grade, scored 14 of her 19 points in the second half to help spark the comeback. Corral had 11 points and three 3-pointers in a span of less than three minutes as USC used a 16-2 run to turn a five-point deficit into a 62-53 lead with 3:40 remaining.

"We knew it was coming," Huskies coach Tia Jackson said of Corral’s outburst. "She’s a kid who wants to take over a game."

However, USC coach Michael Cooper noted that they "aren't built on their offense" and even Corral admitted that it was the team's defense -- not an individual scoring effort -- that led the team to victory.

Quotes From The Huskies Loss To USC - University of Washington Official Athletics Site
USC Guard Ashley Corral

On what caused her scoring outburst: "I think it kind of just took defense. Bri (Briana Gilbreath) got a couple of steals. We got up and pressured. I think that just changed the whole flow of the game. Once we start getting flows, our defense like coach said just builds on our offense. Defense builds confidence and I just think that is what helped us.

Consistent with what both Cooper and Corral said, it was indeed the defense that made the difference in the game, with Washington turning the ball over on 30% of their possessions in the second half and 28% for the game as a whole. A big part of that was the play of guard Briana Gilbreath, who was quietly USC's statistical MVP.

Four Factors
1st eFG% Fta/FGA Oreb% Tov% Team Factors MEV
USC 0.48 0.21 0.16 0.20 4.19 26.98
Wash 0.52 0.13 0.41 0.27 4.87 32.078
2nd eFG% Fta/FGA Oreb% Tov% Team Factors MEV
USC 0.67 0.54 0.20 0.19 7.00 45.706
Wash 0.48 0.44 0.40 0.30 4.81 27.263
Final eFG% Fta/FGA Oreb% Tov% Team Factors MEV
USC 0.57 0.37 0.18 0.20 5.49 72.501
Wash 0.50 0.27 0.41 0.28 4.83 59.341
Weighted Diffs eFG% Fta/FGA Oreb% Tov%
USC 0.67 0.18 -0.96 0.74

While USC's hot second half shooting -- led by Corral's spurt -- took center stage, their defense throughout the game is what really carried them. They finished the game with 27 points off turnovers compared to Washington's 11. It was their defense that kept them in the game before their scoring caught up.

Gilbreath's five steals were no small part of that. In addition to the steals, after Corral hit her first three pointer during their second half run, Gilbreath also guarded Washington point guard Sarah Morton and forced a turnover 20 seconds later. More subtly impressive is that she managed to get her 5 steals without committing any fouls. As Corral said, Gilbreath was part of the glue that held the game together prior to Corral's outstanding scoring performance.

"We just had to buckle down and pick up whatever slack she was having," said Gilbreath.

However, Gilbreath was a factor on offense as well. After going 1-6 in the first half, Gilbreath went 3-6 in the second half, including a three pointer with 10:24 left that initiated a 16-2 USC run spanning nearly seven minutes. She also capped the game off with a free throw to finish 13 points as well as 4 assists to only 1 turnover.

Huskies | Ashley Corral leads USC to 69-65 victory over Washington | Seattle Times Newspaper
Washington (8-9, 3-4) continued to push in the final minute, Kingma even getting fouled on a three-point attempt. But she missed one of the three ensuing free throws and USC guard Briana Gilbreath sealed the victory by making one free throw

Despite a disappointing second half, there were some bright spots for Washington.

Washington not only enjoyed their largest offensive rebounding percentage margin of conference play (+23%), they also outrebounded USC overall 41-25. Even in a loss, that's a significant feat for a team that has struggled to rebound this season, even against smaller teams.

"We improved primarily on the rebounding end, which has always been a bug-a-boo for us," said Jackson. "Even when they came after us on the boards in the second half, we were really, really strong with it."

Washington's leading rebounder was Sami Whitcomb who had an outstanding game and was the statistical MVP, even though Washington loss -- her 34% of the team's valuable contributions in the game was more than anyone on either team and she edged Gilbreath for top MVP honors with 15.37.

Quotes From The Huskies Loss To USC - University of Washington Official Athletics Site
On Sami’s performance: "It was nice, but I know I gave her a challenge to start. To get 10 boards and she got 11. We will call that a highlight.

In terms of backing Bennett's claim that USC will win the Pac-10 tournament, rebounding is an area they will have to improve upon. It was an area for concern for them even in non-conference play.

Pac-10 Conference Preview: Distinguishing Non-Conference Activity from Achievement - Swish Appeal
Another problem has been offensive rebounding, as also mentioned by Cooper. In their first game of the tournament, USC allowed an undersized Dartmouth team to out-rebound them. While they improved upon that against Cal State University-Bakersfield, it’s still an area of concern. The player that made the difference in the tournament was 6’5" center Kari LaPlante and they will need to get a larger percentage of available rebounds, both offensive and defensive – her 9.39% defensive rebounding rate is 6th on the team.

Last night, LaPlante was often pushed out of position by the larger Regina Rogers, but she still ended up with five rebounds and a solid defensive rebounding rate of 19.16%, which led the team. On the downside, she had no offensive rebounds.

However, if it is true that defense wins championships and if Corral can continue to demonstrate the ability to come through when the team needs it, USC's chances of winning in a tournament situation are as good as anyone's.

Building confidence in their defense and winning games is all part of a growth process and Cooper still sees a lot of room for development.

"We felt good about our non-conference schedule," said Cooper of his team that has now won 5 of 6 Pac-10 games, only losing to Stanford. "Our goal was to get to this point. And our non-conference schedule was to get us ready for this and it's been tough. We're 5-1 and we're very fortunate about that but we still know there's a big upside to us and we have to hurry up and gain that to pull ourselves even with the Stanfords and UConns and other players at this level."

Transition Points:

  • There is actually a conditional statement attached to Bennett's claim for why USC will win the Pac-10 tournament: "If Gemelos is the truth, then USC will take it." Most reports are that she may well be "the truth". Cooper says he is excited about her return, but when addressing Jacki Gemelos' health he said they have set a date for her return but will not divulge that information publicly. No less bold, Craig.
  • How could Corral not be the MVP? As described previously, Sparks' marginal victory points are based on more than a spurt of hot shooting, but the total value of a player's contributions to the team's success. Despite having 19 points and 6 assists, Corral had 5 turnovers, 3 fouls, and 1 steal compared to Gilbreath's 4 assists, 1 turnover, 5 steals, and 0 fouls. Gilbreath not only did less negative things during the course of the game, but also played outstanding defense.
  • Should one fly or drive to Washington State University? USC flies today because according to the SID, the bus ride is 7 hours and that's just too long. "If you ever do go," she said. "fly."
  • For what it's worth, ESPN's Mechelle Voepel voted USC #24 this week.