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How "New" Additions Are Helping 10-3 USC Earn Increasing National Respect

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USC guard Jacki Gemelos is quietly making a difference for USC in ways that don't necessarily show up in the box score. Photo by <a href="http://www.photoshelter.com/c/112575" target="new">Craig Bennett/112575 Media</a>.
USC guard Jacki Gemelos is quietly making a difference for USC in ways that don't necessarily show up in the box score. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.

The story of USC guard Jacki Gemelos' tragic injury history and return to action is already well-covered ground.

But it's hard not to revisit the story after watching her play in person for the first time in her first full season of college basketball during USC's 60-51 win at the University of Washington on Sunday.

As Clay Kallam of Slam Online has written previously, it's hard to imagine that the player Seattle basketball fans saw this weekend was anything but a shadow of what she could have been. Nevertheless, there's a reason why she won USC Credit Union Student-Athlete of the Week this week.

Even shooting 3-for-12 against Washington, she was arguably the best all-around player on the court doing a little bit of just about everything from running the offense to blocking shots. Before struggling from the field in Seattle, tied for a team-high 15 points in USC's win against Washington State. Earlier in the week, Gemelos lit up Fresno State for a career-high 27 points last Wednesday in what was described as a game of "anything you can do I can do better" with Fresno State's Jaleesa Ross.

As the third leading scorer on USC's roster, Gemelos might not immediately stand out on a talented 10-3 USC team. And although she is 13th in the nation in three point percentage (a Pac-10 leading 47.6% from the field), what she brings to the Trojans goes beyond statistical impact.

Put simply, at 6'0" Gemelos is arguably the most versatile guard in the Pac-10, capable of guarding multiple positions, serving as the team's lead ball handler, and moving without the ball to finding scoring opportunities in between gaps in the defense.

Even if this isn't what could've been, it's pretty good.

"It's another scorer and we have - with Jacki, Ash, and Bri  - three legitimate people who can shoot the ball," said Cooper of his top three scorers. "It's the first time in a long time USC has had three players in double figures and I think that's what Jacki can do."

Among the most immediate impacts Gemelos has on the court is as another ball handler, which not only allows Ashley Corral to play off the ball as the team's leading scorer more often, but also makes getting out in transition easier for the team with two reasonably equivalent ball handlers to outlet to. That obviously makes it more difficult for defenses to key-in on any one point of attack - either player can trigger the break and either can finish the break, whether scoring for themselves or setting up someone else.

Along those lines, that versatility that Gemelos adds to the unit suddenly makes USC much more difficult to contend with in the half court. With Briana Gilbreath's ability to slash through gaps in the defense, Corral's ability to create off the dribble, and Gemelos' three point accuracy someone is eventually going to beat you - it's extremely difficult to contain all three of those players.

Even if you do contain them as Washington did, Gemelos also adds to USC's defensive attack that already includes Gilbreath, the reigning Pac-10 Co-Defensive Player of the Year. The combination held UW point guard Sarah Morton to two shots and guard Kristi Kingma to 6-for-19 shooting.

USC's trio of guards makes them difficult enough to beat. The addition of 6'2" freshman forward Cassie Harberts just makes them more dangerous.

Harberts adds rebounding, toughness in the post

As Washington found out, even if you manage to contain all three of USC's guards by holding them to 10-for-41 shooting, you also have to worry about their post play this season.

Not only is sophomore Christina Marinacci looking even better on the boards, but Harberts has stepped into the starting lineup as a freshman as well and opened conference play in Washington strong.

"Cassie's coming along - we kinda just like letting her play," said Cooper. "I really haven't coached her that much other than just making some adjustments on her free throws. But she's a high basketball IQ player. And she's our second biggest person. So she has to be thrown in there trial by fire. She doesn't have the luxury that our other two freshman have of kinda like (being) a spot player. She has to go and she has to get it done."

After recording a double-double against Washington State, Harberts tied for a game-high 6 offensive rebounds in USC's dominant rebounding performance against Washington that enabled them to win despite their season-low shooting performance. In addition to her rebounding prowess, Harberts also showed the ability to run the floor and pass the ball well, both from the high post and on the interior. She is still suffering some growing pains - she has among the highest turnover ratios on the team - but that she has responded so well is impressive.

"She does a great job for us," said Cooper. "Her shooting is a little bit off right now, but still she's a big defensive presence for us."

New additions make this a far more dynamic team

After feeling snubbed from the NCAA tournament last season, USC obviously came into this season motivated to make a stronger case for themselves come tournament time.

"Since the morning that we didn't announced it's just been- actually before that, that was the hardest practice I've ever gone through," said Corral when asked about not being selected for the 2010 NCAA Tournament. "And then we didn't get announced and it was just like, 'Oh.' That's just more influence to get back on the court, back in the gym, working hard."

However, USC's six game winning streak and 10-3 start - their best since the 1993-94 season - is not just the matter of a feel good story of inspired play after missing out on March Madness. Gemelos and Harberts make this team noticeably better by adding a versatile perimeter threat and a post player that's not afraid to mix it up on either end.

So while it might sound odd to say that Sunday's win was impressive given that USC shot a season-low 28.4%, it showed us a bit more about how dynamic and resilient this team could be. When you compare the way this season's team performs to last season's, the most obvious thing in watching them play is that they're far more fluid in part because they simply have more versatile parts. Another part of that is simply having played together for long enough to develop a chemistry.

"I've been playing with [Gilbreath] since high school with all the camps," said Corral. "Me and Bri work very, very well together. So when I drive, I'm kind of always looking for Bri and I almost just know where she's going to be and she's always in the cracks and she finishes very well."

As they continue to win, they continue to pick up votes in the national polls, making a leap from 13 to 29 votes in the AP poll this week which leaves them five spots out of the top 25. With #12 UCLA next up this Saturday, they have a chance to improve their national standing by beating their cross-town rival.

If they maintain this pace, they'll be well-positioned for the tournament.