The USC women's basketball team came away with a 65-61 victory and an unblemished record despite nearly blowing a 19-point lead in their home opener against San Diego State at the Galen Center Tuesday evening.
The Trojans moved to 3-0 under new head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke -- the best open for the Women of Troy since 1998-99 -- thanks to a 24-5 start that provided an insurmountable lead.
"It feels great," senior Cassie Harberts said of opening 3-0. "I just don't want us to get content and get complacent, so I just want us to keep getting these wins."
It wasn't without drama though. After starting 1-for-15 from the field, the Aztecs (0-2) made 14 of their next 19 shots to cut USC's lead down to 55-46 with 9:10 remaining.
Over the next six minutes, the Women of Troy pushed their lead back up to 14 thanks to Ariya Crook, who showed off her full-court speed and finishing ability on a pair of plays. On one play, she shot the passing lane and took a steal the length of the court for an easy layup. Later Alexyz Vaioletama jumped out of bounds under San Diego State's basket and saved a ball to Crook, who caught the ball inside the free throw line, turned and burned, taking it the distance, splitting two defenders and finished off a finger roll while being fouled.
But the Aztecs continued to fight back behind 6-4 senior center Cierra Warren. In the final 3:12, Warren put the team on her back, scoring 11 of SDSU's final 13 points to trim a 14-point lead down to four points with 22 seconds.
"She was hurting us, but we did more damage to ourselves than Cierra did," Cooper-Dyke said. "We put her in a situation where she got in a rhythm and it was tough to stop. I didn't think about double teaming her only because I really thought it was more about us than what San Diego State was doing."
USC freshman Courtney Jaco missed the front end of the bonus free throw, giving the Aztecs the ball back with 19 seconds remaining, but the Trojans extended their defense and San Diego State wasn't able to get off a shot until Warren missed a contested shot with five seconds remaining.
"We were just trying to ride the wave until we could get out of this with a W," Cooper-Dyke said. "I don't think any of us felt real good about how we ended this game, but I think we felt the best about the outcome."
"We kind of lost our focus in the latter part of the first half and we could never quite get that intensity back in the second half. But at the end of the day, we pulled it out. We pulled it out with a lot of grit."
Though neither player rebounded well, Warren won the battle of the bigs against Harberts. Despite not scoring in the first half, Warren finished with 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting, while Harberts had 17 points, shooting 8-for-16.
For the third straight game, Crook led the Trojans in scoring. She finished with 18 points. She only shot 4-for-14, but her slashing penetration helped get her to the free throw line 13 times. When locked in, she is a dynamic slasher off the wing and a strong defender. But staying focused for all 40 minutes is sometimes a challenge for Crook.
That's the task at hand for Cooper-Dyke.
"I challenge Ariya constantly. She's an incredible talent. I want her to understand that we expect that from her all the time at both ends of the floor," Cooper-Dyke said. "We talk about her temperature: we can't let her get too high; we can't let her get too low. She has to learn how to regulate that during a game."
"What I try to have with Ariya is a 'don't be satisfied' attitude. Never be satisfied and never underachieve. We're building on that and trying to cultivate that type of atmosphere so she can be more consistent for us."
And if Crook needs a model example, she only has to look to her coach, who has fulfilled every role on a basketball team from being the star to the sixth man to the player at the end of the bench.
"She inspires me. She knows what I have to take the road to get to the next level. She's been there, done that," Crook said. "Any questions or anything I need I can always turn to her. I trust her 100 percent. I just have to trust myself on the court with what she's telling me."
The Women of Troy have more than a week off before they travel to play Oklahoma State (2-0) next Friday. San Diego State is back in action on Monday against rival San Diego (2-0).
Here are some highlights and clips from the post-game press conference: