If anyone could give a championship-caliber halftime speech to motivate their team, it should be USC coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke.
Cooper-Dyke, who led USC to two NCAA tournament championships and won four WNBA titles, put the same fire in her players at the break of USC’s first conference championship game since 2009. The speech, punctuated with the instruction that USC would press on every defensive possession, turned a seven-point halftime deficit against Oregon State into a 71-62 victory at KeyArena.
“I’m speechless because, I mean, Coach believes in us so much and her energy translates into us,” USC junior guard Ariya Crook said. She was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, finishing with a team-high 16 points.
“For her to start the energy, start the tone for us is huge,” Crook continued. “That’s why we’re in the position right now is because of her. Big ups to Coach Cooper.”
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The fifth-seeded Trojans (21-12) earned the Pac-12’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. It’s the school’s first appearance since 2006. USC hasn’t won an NCAA championship since Cooper-Dyke donned the maroon and gold. Watching Sunday’s display of passion on the KeyArena sideline, it seemed the first-year coach could fuel a change there, too.
Since Cooper-Dyke left campus, USC has faded into the perception of being a “soft team.” Under former coach Michael Cooper (no relation), the team believed it did enough to advance to postseason tournaments and wasn’t awarded bids. In 2010 it declined a Women’s NIT bid because of feeling spurned by the NCAA.
Now USC can ignore the selection show if its wants.
“I’ve sat in our locker room for the past three years and watched our name not be called,” said USC senior Cassie Harberts. “We’ve rightfully earned a spot to the NCAA tournament.”
USC upset top-seeded Stanford on Saturday to advance to the conference championship, again erasing doubt about the talent or worthiness of the team.
Cooper-Dyke’s tweak to a full-court press created a 9-0 run out of the locker room. Leading 48-46, freshman guard Courtney Jaco nailed a three-pointer that started a 12-2 USC run over a span of 4:14 to take a 60-48 lead.
The Trojans blanketed OSU ball handlers and pushed their biggest threat — center Ruth Hamblin, who is 6 feet 6 — out of the paint to get the needed defensive stops to take over the game.
The Trojans held the Beavers (23-10) without a field goal for a span of 8:36 in the second half. Sophomore forward Deven Hunter ended the drought with a high-flying layin.
Another layin by Hunter slimmed the deficit to 65-60 with 1:47 left.
Still down five with under a minute to play, OSU coach Scott Rueck opted not to foul and his team did get the defensive stop. Rueck called for his team to run “pitch,” sending noted three-pointer Jamie Weisner behind a screen for a three-point attempt.
It missed and the “We Are SC” chants started around KeyArena. USC ended OSU’s 11-game winning streak, the Beavers making their first appearance in the Pac-12 tournament title game.
“Yeah, the full-court press was obviously the difference in the game,” Rueck said. “For whatever reason, that is something that’s happened to us a few times this year. They came to fight.”
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JaydaEvans.