Los Angeles Times
USC, UCLA take different paths to get in
Trojans end tournament drought, Bruins back after one-year hiatus
No matter how many times she’s heard her team’s name called during the NCAA tournament selection show, Lindsay Gottlieb still gets nervous.
The USC head coach anxiously bounced her 5month-old daughter Reese in her arms as the names ticked across the screen at a pub near USC’s campus. Her players stared at the TV with phones recording the show in anticipation of their moment.
When USC was announced as a No. 8 seed in the Seattle I Region, ending a nine-year NCAA tournament drought for the Trojans, Gottlieb threw her hands in the air and USC players yelled and danced. USC (21-9) will play No. 9 South Dakota State on Friday in Blacksburg, Va., where No. 1-seeded Virginia Tech will host.
The Trojans were picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12’s preseason poll, but will participate in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014.
“We’re trying to build something special for USC,” forward Kadi Sissoko said. “It’s been a minute since they actually won anything or been to March Madness so it’s very exciting and we’re all trying to come together and prove something.”
USC wasn’t the only team surpassing preseason expectations. UCLA began the season unranked and secured a No. 4 seed, hosting Sacramento State in the first round Saturday in the Greenville I Region. No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 12 Portland round out the four teams playing at Pauley Pavilion.
The Bruins are making their sixth appearance in the last seven NCAA tournaments. Since 2015, when the NCAA began using top-four seeds as host sites for the two rounds, UCLA has hosted three and advanced to the Sweet 16 every time.
“You still have to execute your game plan,” UCLA coach Cori Close said, “but if you look throughout history, being able to play at home has proven to be a pretty big advantage.”
While the Bruins are returning to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus, the path back to postseason prominence has been much longer for the Trojans. USC earned an atlarge bid in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006, clearing the first major hurdle of the program’s rebuild in Gottlieb’s second year at the helm.
The team celebrated with a watch party near campus. Athletic director Mike Bohn, donors, cheerleaders and band members packed a reception area at Rock and Reilly’s Irish Pub among players and coaches. This is the first time since 1997 that USC has sent its men’s and women’s teams to the NCAA tournament in the same year.
“We ultimately have much greater and bigger goals, Final Fours and national championships, but you have to take steps,” Gottlieb said. “And from where we were at this time last year to where we are now, it’s a really special accomplishment.”
Gottlieb noted how the team had just six players during the summer after players transferred out. The Trojans reloaded with seven incoming transfers, led by Sissoko (Minnesota) and Destiny Littleton (South Carolina). They blossomed into All-Pac-12 players along with returner Rayah Marshall, who was the only player in the Pac-12 to average a double-double with 12.6 points and 11.4 rebounds.
Led by senior Charisma Osborne (15.5 points, 5.6 rebounds) and freshman Kiki Rice (11.7 points), the Bruins defeated Arizona and Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament en route to the championship game, where they fell to Washington State.
With the No. 1 freshman class in the country, Close received excited feedback earlier this year from WNBA and USA Basketball officials that the Bruins would be “so good next year.” But they didn’t settle for next season.
“It was like, we were never going to make it to where we are,” Close said. “So to earn a chance to play at home and watch these young people grow in the midst of having so many new faces and new players, it’s been really rewarding.”
After a disappointing first-round exit in the Pac-12 tournament, USC regrouped on campus for practice last week. The Trojans got in the March Madness mood by watching the HBO documentary “Women of Troy” chronicling USC’s rise to power when led by Cheryl Miller from 1982 to 1986. The film brought chills to Marshall, the sophomore from L.A. said.
“It gave us a chip on our shoulder, if they can get out there and compete, we wanted to get out there and do the same thing,” Marshall said. “We wanted to represent for them. If they can do what they can do, we can at least go out there and give our all for them.”