Lindsay Gottlieb knew her defense was good. But she didn’t know how well.
At just 54.8 points per game, USC is on track to have the highest-scoring defense in the program’s NCAA history. Gottlieb, the team’s sophomore coach, raised an eyebrow and modestly nodded in agreement upon hearing the fact.
The team’s defense is a perfect combination of staff, planning and passion. That’s why the seeded No. 8 Trojans are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014. They open their tournament run Friday at 5 p.m. in Blacksburg, Virginia, against No. 9 South Dakota. The game will be televised on ESPNews.
There’s more than heart and soul behind the Pac-12-leading USC defense, ranked 18th nationally. Calling the art of defense energy is an insult by the standards of Associate Head Coach Beth Burns.
“There’s a method to our madness,” said the staff’s defense chief.
In their first year under Gottlieb, the Trojans conceded 64.7 points per game, ranking 155th in the country. After the season, Gottlieb evaluated the program to begin rebuilding in earnest. The first step was reloading talents through the transfer portal.
Seven players joined, including four who cracked the starting lineup. Kayla Williams, who earned Big West’s All-Defensive Team Honors at UC Irvine last season, sets the tone at the front of the defense.
The Bishop Montgomery graduate jumped at the opportunity to join USC this season. The undersized, 5-foot-7 guard got interest from the former USC coaching staff who dropped out of high school, but never received an official offer. Instead, she won Big West Freshman of the Year at Irvine and received all of the conference’s first-team honors in consecutive years.
After proving herself with the UCI, Williams is motivated to excel for her hometown school, starting on the defensive end.
“When I take on a larger person, a lot of people don’t think I can defend them well, so I take that personally,” Williams said. “I feel like I have a lot to prove defensively and I know what I can do, so it’s just a matter of honestly proving people wrong.”
Pressure on the ball is the foundation of USC defense, Burns said. With Williams pressing at the heart of the attack, the Trojans hope to get their opponents in the game.
This is Rayah Marshall’s domain.
The sophomore, who was named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team, is the second-biggest shot blocker in the nation at 3.37 per game. Her 91 blocks is third in USC history in a season and just four behind Lisa Leslie’s all-time record.
Along with Marshall, the Trojans have 6-foot-2 Minnesota transfer Kadi Sissoko and 6-foot Okako Adika, a transfer from Texas Christian. The pair has length and shiftability. Point guard Destiny Littleton is one of the smartest players on the team, Burns said, and is always able to announce plays.
The group is “built as well as it can be built,” Gottlieb said.
But even with the staff, Burns needed time to understand their players’ abilities. She only joined the team in June and the Trojans spent several weeks over the summer just working on basic defense skills.
“When I started, it was like speaking a different language,” said Burns, the most successful head coach in San Diego State history, who led the Aztecs to seven NCAA tournament appearances in 15 seasons. “They thought I was crazy.”
Williams’ first impression of Burns was that the coach was “old-fashioned and tough.”
“Tough, tough, tough,” echoes the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team Honorable Mention with a smile.
That toughness extends to their players, who are motivated to take Burns’ defensive gospel to the pitch.
“She’s not picking up a game,” Williams said. “So she doesn’t allow us to make a playoff. And that makes us play for 40 minutes.”
USC stays on defense even as its offense struggles. The Trojans have shot worse than 30% off the field in four of their last five games, but still won two of those games with poor shooting. After a 56-47 loss to Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, a major talking point was capitalizing on the team’s defensive success by converting on offense, Burns said.
But the veteran coach knows offense can be fickle in March. Courts are suddenly covered in special NCAA branding and reporters and television cameras pack press conferences. The scene can be particularly nerve-wracking for teams lacking experience on the big stage.
Littleton, who helped South Carolina to a national championship last season, knows how to do it. She also knows the value of defense in March, after the Gamecocks conceded 45.5 points per game in the tournament last year, the second-lowest mark in history.
“You can’t really control whether the ball goes in the basket, but you can control what you do on defense,” Littleton said. “Whoever gets the most stops at the end wins the game.”
Source : www.latimes.com