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March 10, 2014 at 11:15 AM

And the winner is…USC left KeyArena as first-time Pac-12 tourney champs (VIDEO)


USC’s 2014 Pac-12 championship team
DEAN RUTZ / The Seattle Times

There were some interesting moments behind the beam of the ESPN camera for USC’s Pac-12 tournament championship win. The Trojans defeated Oregon State 71-62 on Sunday at KeyArena. Sophomore G Brianna Barrett and junior PG Ariya Crook sealed the win at the foul line, making two free-throws apiece.

The backcourt duo’s suffocating execution of the full-court press to start the second half completely rattled OSU. One of the country’s better three-point shooting teams, OSU was worn down by the end of the game and its #SwishSisters missed three opportunities at the clutch shot in the final minute, the first by Jamie Weisner (Clarkston HS) with the Beavers down five points.

Weisner, a sophomore G, played in her third game after missing OSU’s nine-game win streak to end the regular-season due to a left (non-shooting) hand injury. OSU was 1 of 10 from three-point range in the second half overall.

“It’s just another life lesson,” OSU freshman PG Sydney Wiese said. She was named to the six-member all-tournament team selected by media. “USC is a great team and they earned this championship.”

Here are some highlights from the game:

After winning, USC coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke spread her arms wide in satisfaction at the crowd behind the scorer’s table. It was were most of the 4,785 in attendance sat. She then seemingly never let go of the trophy, pumping it in the air to the audience while her team all faced the other way toward the ESPN cameras, dancing under confetti rain. Harberts, who really has had spectacular team-leadership this season, presented the game-ball to Cooper-Dyke afterward and the coach wore the KeyArena hoop’s net like a necklace into the postgame interview. The players only wore hats and t-shirts. I didn’t spot any pieces of the net.

All a little odd from my lifelong experience in the basketball world. Those trinkets are historically reserved for the players. If they are given to a coach, the team normally surrounds the coach in celebration. Maybe even a Gatorade bath. Or maybe a piece of the net. Or maybe the whole net, but not the trophy and game-ball. Or maybe all of it, but the coach immediately gives it back to the players who played the game.

Harberts giving Cooper-Dyke the game ball seemed appropriate. Cooper-Dyke won USC’s only two NCAA championships alongside Cheryl Miller in the 1980s. A native Chicagoan who was raised in LA, Cooper-Dyke went on to win championships overseas before returning to win Olympic gold and four consecutive WNBA titles with the defunct Houston Comets alongside Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes.

If anyone can teach you how to play the game to win championships, it’s Cooper-Dyke. She even had to win the USC position, earning a bachelor’s degree at Prairie View A&M while leading that team to its first winning record and NCAA tournament berth in program history. She did the same for losing programs at UNC Wilmington and Texas Southern, stumbling through some NCAA rules violations, before accepting the USC position, replacing NBA legend Michael Cooper (no relation).

Michael Cooper cried on the Pac-12 postgame podium when the Trojans lost 78-59 to California in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament at KeyArena in 2013. The Trojans finished the season at 11-20, 7-11 in conference play.

Three days after top-seeded Stanford won its seventh-consecutive crown, he quit.

“This program has to move forward, and it should have moved forward under my leadership. The best thing is for me to step down,” Cooper said in a released statement. He resurfaced last winter as the Atlanta Dream coach. “Coaching these young women at USC has been a wonderful experience for me. I wish nothing but the best for USC and the women’s basketball program.”

Cooper-Dyke entered with Cooper’s players and recruits, who underachieved and suffered key injuries, and led them to a championship when no one (I must have dismissed the Trojans three times this season, including the eve of the championship) picked the team to win. NBA legend Bill Walton even struggled to find a positive about USC in a regular-season 86-59 loss to Stanford, settling on a love for Harbert’s game. (Storm draftee?)

So yeah, Cooper-Dyke got the kids to the NCAA tournament. Everyone knows that’s a major accomplishment. But Cooper-Dyke, 50, accepting the game-ball, trophy and game-net for doing so as the first-year coach? Dang Coop, don’t you have enough bling? Let the kids have the trinkets. You know how to win gobs more, upsetting Stanford in the semifinals to get back your winning record against legendary coach Tara VanDerveer (3-2 all-time).

Of course, this is just what was displayed behind the ESPN spotlight. I didn’t travel to USC for UW’s win there this season, so I don’t know what the Trojans are like day-to-day or in their own environment. This could just be how the team rolls.

One thing that did get all of the heads bobbing in agreement postgame was how hard the team worked to break the cycle of losing. California is suffering a water shortage and USC made the most of our region’s water supply, apparently taking mobile ice baths to keep legs churning through four consecutive wins — the most to win a Pac-12 tournament title in the event’s 13-year history.

That’s when Cooper-Dyke did share the praise. She joined Harberts, Crook, and freshman Kiki Alofaituli at the postgame podium, all wanting to give special thanks to Kelly Dormandy, their strength and conditioning assistant coach.

“She just kept them loose and stretched,” Cooper-Dyke said. “And you talk about team effort, our trainer, Rachel (Schlachet), they must have done five ice whirlpools from the hotel bathtubs to getting in the whirlpool here (KeyArena). We just tried to do everything possible to be prepared for this game and be able to give a hundred percent.”

The last piece of giving was fifth-seeded USC gambling on coasting as much as it could in the opening half against OSU in attempt to run over the No. 3 seed in the second half with a press and score scheme, winner taking all. The systematic Beavers never played with that championship fire Cooper-Dyke can tell you is needed in order to win.

Executing the season-long plan to perfection, USC has a week to bask in its first conference tournament championship and tune-in next Monday to see its name slotted among the 64 teams vying for a NCAA title for the first time since 2006.

“I felt a difference in this team that we wanted it and we were going to do whatever we had to do to get it,” Harberts said. “I’m so proud of them. That was the first Pac-12 championship in our program’s history, so I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

Here’s more of how the players’ felt about winning the Pac-12 conference’s automatic NCAA tournament bid:

Comments | More in Northwest Ballers, Pac-12, Video | Topics: Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, Sydney Wiese, Tara VanDerveer


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