USC brings elite defense into matchup with SDSU

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BLACKSBURG, Va. – The South Dakota State women drew a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will be taking on the USC Trojans, who are seeded eighth, in Blacksburg, Virginia, on Friday. So, let’s get to know the Trojans.

USC comes into the tournament with an overall record of 21-9 and this is the first time the Trojans have been to the tournament since 2014. The Trojans began the season 10-0 but none of those wins came against power five (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC) conference teams.  USC then lost back-to-back games to UCLA and Texas before it was fully entrenched in Pac-12 play.

The Trojans would finish in sixth place in the Pac-12 with a record of 11-7 in conference play. USC had wins over Stanford, who is a No. 1 seed, and Oregon, Colorado Washington and Washington State, who are all in the NCAA Tournament as well. However, the Trojans were upset in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament by Oregon State, who went 13-18 and finished in 11th in the Pac-12.

Graduate transfer Destiny Littlton, who is in her first season with the Trojans after winning a national championship with South Carolina last year said playing in the Pac-12 will help prepare them for NCAA Tournament play.

"The Pac-12 conference is probably one of the best conferences in the nation. Anybody can win on any given night, and we have multiple teams who are in the top of the pack. Just kind of being prepared in that manner. Seeing competition every single night definitely helps us coming into NCAA tournament where every single team you play is really good," she said.

The success of the Trojans this season has come from their play on the defensive end. USC is 11th in defensive field goal percentage in the NCAA, holding opponents to 35.4% shooting on the season, and is 18th in scoring defense as the Trojans give up 54.8 points per game. The Trojans are 25th in the country in opponent 3-point percentage as teams have shot 27.3% from beyond the arc against them this season and are sixth in blocks per game (5.7).

“We’re playing a team that is elite defensively,” said SDSU head coach Aaron Johnston. “When you look at their numbers in the Pac-12, which is an elite basketball conference, some of the best teams in the country play in that league, Southern California stands out as a defensive team. They really make it hard for you to be comfortable and make shots. They block a lot of shots and rebound really well. So, those things on the defensive end are elite from them,” Johnston said.

The Trojans’ defense is led by sophomore Rayah Marshall who is the second leading shot blocker in the country, averaging 3.37 blocked shots per game. Marshall is surrounded by three graduate seniors and one junior to round out the starting lineup for USC and Johnston said that experience along with Marshall’s shot blocking is what makes USC so hard to go up against offensively.

“Really good defensive teams have multiple levels that make them good. One, they guard the ball really well. They have great quickness on the perimeter and can pick the ball up full court. Defensively, they have some of the best guards that we will play against this year. … And then inside, they have players who can block shots. They challenge shots and they block a ton of them. So you have pressure on the perimeter and shot blockers inside, and then around there they can really just guard people one-on-one. … So, really at every level they’ve proven that they can be really good,” Johnston said.

As good as the Trojans are defensively, they struggle a bit on the offensive end. USC was 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring, averaging 64.5 points per game. The Trojans were also 11th in the conference in field goal percentage as they shoot 38.1% from the field for the season.

They are led by graduate senior forward Kadi Sissoko who is averaging 15.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Littleton averages 13.8 points per game as well.

Despite the low shooting and scoring numbers, Johnston believes that the Trojans are still a good offensive team.

“On the offensive end, you’re just playing against a team that’s really talented and can make a lot of plays. They have a lot of good post players that can score and they shoot the ball well from the 3-point line. They’re just a very complete team,” Johnston said.

Marshall stands at 6-foot-4 and Sissoko is 6-foot-2. Those two will be some of the tallest players that SDSU will face this season, but it isn’t the first time the Jacks have gone up against size this year. SDSU played a very tall team in No. 1 ranked South Carolina and also went up against Mississippi State, Louisville and Kansas State, who are also tall and long.

Johnston said he his team schedules those teams in the nonconference because he knows those are the type of teams that they will see in the NCAA Tournament.

“I think seeing teams [with size and length earlier in the season] really helps. I really do. We’ve been deliberate about our nonconference schedule over the years to help us prepare for these moments and help move our program forward. There’s no doubt that what we’ve done over the past 10 to 12 years helps us to continue to get ready for these kind of games,” Johnston said.

The leader of the Trojans on the sideline is Lindsey Gottlieb and she is in her second season at USC. She was the head coach at California for eight seasons and led the Golden Bears to a Final Four in 2013. She then became an assistant for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2019 before getting the head job at USC in 2021. This is the third school that she has taken to the NCAA Tournament as she brought UC Santa Barbara to the tournament in 2009. Gottlieb has a career record of 268-153.

SDSU and USC will play in the first round at 7 p.m. Central time on Friday. You can watch the game on ESPN News.