LOS ANGELES (AP)It is an understatement when Lindsay Gottlieb says it has been an incredible year for her and her team.
The Southern California women’s basketball coach has the 25th-ranked Trojans in position to end their nine-year NCAA Tournament drought.
USC (19-6) is in The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2016 and is one of six teams from the Pac-12 to appear in the rankings. With two weeks left before the conference tournament, the Trojans are fighting for one of the top four spots and a first-round bye with a 9-5 mark in Pac-12 play.
USC visits third-ranked Stanford on Friday. Its biggest win this season came on Jan. 15 when it posted a 55-46 victory against the Cardinal, snapping their 39-game conference winning streak.
”This has been the most incredible year, for me and with this group, in many ways,” Gottlieb said. ”I don’t know if I’ve had as enjoyable of a time because they’ve all really bought in. To see the success that we’re having is particularly gratifying, just because of how unique of a year it has been.”
Gottlieb is in her second season at USC after a two-year stint as an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers. She was the first women’s coach from a Power Five conference to go to an NBA sideline after eight successful seasons at California, including an appearance in the Final Four in 2013.
Few doubted Gottlieb would be able to rebuild a storied program that had fallen on hard times. USC was a national power during the 1980s and early 1990s, including NCAA titles in 1983 and ’84. But the program that had once featured Hall of Famers Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper, and Lisa Leslie has made only three trips to the NCAA Tournament since 1997.
The consensus was it would take a while for Gottlieb to get things going. The Trojans were 12-16 last season and were picked to finish ninth this season in the Pac-12’s preseason poll.
But a roster that features seven transfers, including four graduate students, was able to quickly gel.
”I feel like we really hit go at the end of last season,” Gottlieb said. ”In April and May, I was pregnant, but we were doing double-digit official visits to build this team. We were doing culture meetings with the returning players to get them ready for what this year would be like. Our transfers came here with belief but not a whole lot else. They had to trust me.”
While teams are still in conditioning mode in September, Gottlieb used the limited time to install some offensive and defensive sets but then went on maternity leave. Her second child, Reese Caroline Gottlieb Martin, was born on Oct. 15, while associate head coach Beth Burns took over interim duties. Assistant coaches Wendale Farrow and Nneka Enemkpali also had significant roles.
Gottlieb returned in time for the opener and the Trojans won their first nine games. With one more victory, they will secure only their third 20-win season since 2005.
The Trojans’ strength this season has been defense. They are sixth in the nation in blocks per game (5.6) and 10th in scoring defense, holding teams to an average of 54 points per game.
Sophomore Rayah Marshall, the lone returning starter from last season, is the only player in the Pac-12 averaging a double-double at 13.5 points and 11.8 rebounds.
Forward Kadi Sissoko, a graduate student transfer from Minnesota, is the team’s leading scorer at 15 points per game. She also has four games this season where she has scored at least 20 points.
South Carolina transfer Destiny Littleton has added leadership and 13.9 points per game.
”One of my goals coming here was I knew SC needed to be back on the map,” said Littleton, who grew up in San Diego. ”For too many years, SC has been a nobody. Honestly, bottom of the pack. And now we’re finally turning heads.”
USC isn’t content to rest on its laurels. Juju Watkins, the top women’s player in the Class of 2023, committed to the Trojans during the early signing period and has already generated plenty of excitement.
However, a tournament trip this season would increase that even more.
”The goal has always been to focus on giving this group the experience they deserve, while also working our tails off on recruiting. And it’s funny because no one wants to see our success this year more than Juju,” Gottlieb said. ”Making the tournament would be incredibly significant for all of us, and then you can look to next year and what we’re capable of with the pieces we’re adding.”
More AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25