Lindsay Gottlieb knew her defense was good. But she didn’t realize how good she was.
Allowing just 54.8 points per game, USC is on pace to have the best scoring defense in NCAA program history. Gottlieb, the team’s sophomore coach, raised her eyebrows and nodded in modest approval when she heard the fact.
Team defense is a perfect combination of personnel, planning and passion. That’s why the No. 8-seeded Trojans are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014. They open their tournament run against No. 9 South Dakota State at 5 p.m. in Blacksburg, Virginia, on Friday. The game will be televised on ESPNews.
It’s more than hustle and heart behind USC’s leading Pac-12 defense that ranks 18th in the country. Calling the art of defense just energy is an insult by associate head coach Beth Burns’ standards.
“There is a method to our madness,” the defensive staff leader said.
In the first year under Gottlieb, the Trojans allowed 64.7 points per game, which ranked them 155th in the country. After the season, Gottlieb evaluated the program to begin its rebuild in earnest. The first step was to reload talent through the transfer portal.
Seven players were added, including four who broke the starting lineup. Kayla Williams, who earned Big West All-Defensive Team honors at UC Irvine last season, sets the tone at the top of defense.
The Bishop Montgomery alumna jumped at the chance to come to USC this season. The 5-foot-7 shooting guard drew interest from the previous USC coaching staff coming out of high school, but never received an official offer. Instead, he won Big West Freshman of the Year while at Irvine and earned first-team all-conference honors in back-to-back years.
Having proven herself at UCI, Williams is motivated to make her mark at her hometown school, starting on the defensive end.
“If I have a taller person above me, a lot of people don’t think I can defend them well, so I take it personally,” Williams said. “I feel like I have a lot to prove on the defensive end and I know what I can do, so it’s about honestly proving people wrong.”
Ball rushing is the foundation of USC’s defense, Burns said. With Williams pressing on point of attack, the Trojans hope to funnel opponents into the paint.
That’s Rayah Marshall’s domain.
The sophomore who was named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team is the second-best shot blocker in the nation at 3.37 per game. His 91 blocks are third in USC single-season history and just four behind Lisa Leslie’s all-time record.
Along with Marshall, the Trojans have 6-foot-2 Minnesota transfer Kadi Sissoko and 6-foot Okako Adika, a Texas Christian transfer. The pair has length and commutability. Point guard Destiny Littleton is one of the smartest players on the team, Burns said, and is always in a position to call plays.
The group is “built as well as it can be built,” Gottlieb said.
But even with the staff in place, it took time for Burns to understand his players’ capabilities. She didn’t join the staff until June and the Trojans spent several weeks over the summer working on critical defensive skills.
“When I started, it was like speaking a different language,” said Burns, the winningest head coach in San Diego State history, who led the Aztecs to seven NCAA tournament appearances in 15 seasons. “They thought he was crazy.”
Williams’ first impression of Burns was that the manager was “old school and tough”.
“Tough, tough, tough,” the all-defensive Pac-12 team honorable mention repeats with a smile.
That toughness extends to her players, who are motivated to bring Burns’ defensive gospel to the court.
“She doesn’t take a play,” Williams said. “So she doesn’t allow us to take a play. And that’s what makes us play for 40 minutes.”
USC stays focused on defense even when their offense struggles. The Trojans have shot less than 30% from the field in four of their last five games, but they still won two of those poor shooting games. Capitalizing on the team’s defensive success by converting to offense was a key talking point after a 56-47 loss to Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, Burns said.
But the veteran coach knows that the offense can be fickle in March. Suddenly, the courts are covered in special NCAA branding and reporters and TV cameras fill the press conferences. The scene can be especially stressful for teams inexperienced on the big stage.
Littleton, who helped South Carolina win a national championship last season, knows how it works. She also knows the value of defense during March after the Gamecocks allowed 45.5 points per game in the tournament last year, the second-lowest mark ever.
“You can’t really control if the ball goes in the rim, but you can control what you do on defense,” Littleton said. “Ultimately, whoever gets the most saves wins the game.”