Ninth-seeded Southern California tries to extend a six-game winning streak that includes a Pac-12 tournament title as it faces No. 8 seed St. John's on Saturday in a first-round matchup in Knoxville.
Southern California (22-10) was 16-12 and unsure of its postseason status before going on this late surge that included a Pac-12 semifinal upset of Stanford."The fact that our season could be ending was looming over our head," said forward Cassie Harberts, second on USC with 15.6 points per game behind Ariya Crook (15.8). "One game could be our last, and we knew what we had to do to even get a chance to get into the NCAA tournament."Southern California is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. St. John's (22-12) is making a school-record fifth consecutive appearance.USC "is a team that certainly got hot," St. John's coach Joe Tartamella said. "They're coming in hot. We know that. We also feel that we have all the tools necessary to match up."Under new coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, a two-time WNBA MVP who played on USC's 1983 and 1984 national championship teams, Southern California is in the tournament just one year after going 11-20 and matching the highest loss total in school history."When I first took over the program, I absolutely believed we had the ability to play postseason basketball in the NCAA tournament," Cooper-Dyke said. "I absolutely believed we had the level of talent. I still thought we had to work on and change the culture."St. John's, meanwhile, won 11 consecutive games at one point in the season to climb into the Top 25, but the Red Storm followed that up by losing four straight. St. John's now is back on the upswing, as the Red Storm won three straight games before falling 65-57 to DePaul in the Big East tournament final.Aliyyah Handford had 13 points in that game to break the single-season school record for points by a sophomore (517). She leads the team with 16.2 per game.Red Storm junior Amber Thompson enters the tournament nine rebounds shy of breaking the program's single-season record. She averaged 9.0 boards.Handford and Thompson look to help St. John's improve upon its 6-8 overall record in the tournament.A major factor in the first meeting between these schools could be 3-point shooting. USC hit an impressive 46.1 percent from beyond the arc during its six-game win streak to close the season. The Red Storm are 11th in the country in 3-point defense after limiting opponents to 26.8 percent.