Trojan defense poses difficulty for Rockets

USC's Cassie Harberts, left, and Briana Gilbreath, right, hamper the shot taken by Illinos State's Hannah Spanich in their WNIT semi.
USC's Cassie Harberts, left, and Briana Gilbreath, right, hamper the shot taken by Illinos State's Hannah Spanich in their WNIT semi.

In his 12-year career with the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers, Michael Cooper became known for his steadfast defense.

Cooper was named to the NBA's all-defensive team eight times in his career, and Larry Bird once called him "the best defender" he ever faced.

Now, as the women's basketball coach at Southern California, Cooper's Trojans have adopted a similar defensive-minded identity.

In their 63-36 win at Illinois State on Wednesday, setting up Saturday's championship showdown with the University of Toledo at 3 p.m. at Savage Arena in the Women's National Invitation Tournament, the Women of Troy held the Redbirds to just one point in the first nine-plus minutes of the contest while building a 15-point advantage.

Illinois State recovered to shoot 36 percent in the first half (10-of-28), but converted on just 6-of-32 (19 percent) attempts after the break.

WNIT champions
2010: California
2009: South Florida
2008: Marquette
2007: Wyoming
2006: Kansas State
2005: Missouri State
2004: Creighton
2003: Auburn
2002: Oregon
2001: Ohio State
2000: Wisconsin
1999: Arkansas
1998: Penn State

"That's what I believe in. Defense wins championships," Cooper said Friday. "And defense can create some offense for you, and that's the one philosophy I brought last year [after being named USC's head coach].

"The players have just grasped hold of it now. They're starting to understand the important of defense. It's not just about getting the ball back. It's about getting the ball back with an opportunity to score."

In its five victories — the last four of which have been on the road — during its WNIT run, USC has outscored its opponents by an average of almost 16 points per game. The main reason for that is the fact that the Trojans are surrendering just 55.8 points per game.

"We make a conscious effort of being a very sound defensive team," Cooper said. "I think the one luxury I have with some of the players, or at least their parents, is them knowing who I was as a player. They understand I was a defensive player, so that's what we constantly preach in practice."

Before tampering down the length of practices during the postseason, Cooper said the Trojans would spend almost two hours every day in practice just working on defensive-oriented drills.

"Defense is what it's about," said Cooper, who coached the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA for eight seasons in two stints prior to taking over at USC. "We understand that we need to be good individual defensive players in order to be a good defensive team.

"We spend a lot of time on that, and it's starting take hold for us."

In addition to USC's defensive prowess, UT coach Tricia Cullop said she's been impressed with the Trojans' ability to go on the road and have success.

After narrowly defeating UC-Santa Barbara 67-64 at home in the first round of the WNIT, the Women of Troy have outscored their opposition 72.5-53.8 in their last four road games.

"They've gone into difficult environments," Cullop said. "It's going to be a great game. Once you get to this level, you know it's going to be a great matchup."

UT has been fortunate enough to play all of their games in the WNIT at home, so far knocking off opponents from the Colonial Athletic Association, the Southeastern Conference, the Big East Conference, and the Atlantic 10.

Now, the Rockets will have to knock off a Pac-10 institution if they want claim the program's first ever national postseason tournament title.

"We're just extremely happy to be here and we'll give it our best shot," Cullop said.

RETROSPECTIVE: Blade coverage of Toledo's tournament run

NOTE: Saturday's WNIT championship game is a sell out. Tickets for the general public sold out six hours after going on sale Thursday, while all student tickets were taken yesterday. Students get in free. Doors open Saturday at Savage Arena at 1:30 p.m.

Contact Zach Silka at: or 419-724-6084.

Women's National Invitation Tournament
Southern California at Toledo
Time: 3 p.m.
Records: USC is 24-12; UT is 28-8.
TV: CBS College Sports.
Radio: 1230.
Series: USC leads 1-0.
Notes: Toledo has won 17 straight games at Savage Arena, the third-longest streak in school history and the longest since they won 20 consecutive home games over the course of the 1994-95 and '95-96 seasons. … USC has won four straight games on the road in the WNIT and holds an 11-9 record away from home this season. … In their only other meeting, the Trojans handed UT a 96-66 drubbing in the consolation finals of the Long Beach Dial Classic on Dec. 12, 1987. … Junior G Naama Shafir, sophomore C Yolanda Richardson, and senior G Jessica Williams are leading Toledo offensively in the WNIT, scoring 15.4, 13.2, and 10.6 points per game, respectively. … The Trojans tied for fourth in the Pac-10 standings with a 10-8 mark and feature an attack with four players averaging double digits, led by 6-1 junior G Briana Gilbreath's 14.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.3 blocks and 2.4 steals per game. An AP All-American honorable mention selection, Gilbreath is averaging 10.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals per game in the postseason.