It was a rainy afternoon at the University of Southern California. Practice courts hid along the corners of the second floor of the Galen Center
Before USC opened the 10,000 plus-seat facility in 2006, the Trojan basketball teams played at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena adjacent to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum parking lot.
The L.A. Memorial Sports Arena opened in 1959 and its glory days were long behind by the 21st century. When Bruce Springsteen played there, which he did often, he called it, literally, a dump – the “dump that jumps.”
For the longest time, that is where USC basketball was relegated: a dump.
Moreover, it stood in the shadow of the Coliseum, known as the ‘Grand Old Lady,’ where the USC football team under John McKay, and later Pete Carroll, rose to glory.
At the Galen Center, practice facility “A” opened up to two full-sized basketball courts in pristine condition. Large pictures of USC basketball players loomed above on the large beige walls. Legitimately big-time players, Nick Young, DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson and Nikola Vucevic had their pictures hung on the right side of the wall—frozen mid-pump-fake, lay-up, or poster dunk.
On the left side were arrayed the women’s stars. No disrespect to Young or DeRozan but in no way do the guys stack up to Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and Cheryl Miller—all members of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. In particular, Miller’s portrait showed off her prideful smile as she stood with a cut-open net laced around her neck after guiding the Trojans to a 1983 National Championship.
The football shadow is big. That is perhaps understandable.
The question is why at USC the shadow is so big for the women’s basketball team, traditionally so good – especially when the men’s team is mediocre at best.
This season, the men’s basketball team, 16-17, averaged over 4,000 spectators per game. The women’s team, who finished, 17-13, averaged just 500.
The men’s team has yet to achieve a Final Four appearance, let alone back-to-back national championships.
The Women of Troy boasted a winning program in the 1980s under legendary head coach Linda Sharp—whose style of fast-paced basketball was revolutionary to the women’s game—and led to both national titles. The torch was then passed onto hall-of-fame coach Marianne Stanley who led the Lisa Leslie-Tina Thompson star duo to multiple NCAA tournaments. Miller returned to USC coach the team for two seasons before abruptly leaving to pursue a broadcasting career in 1995, but that’s where the magic seems to end.
After a seven-year drought, the team made the Big Dance in back-to-back years in 2005 and 2006, while their last appearance was in 2014 after winning their first Pac-12 tournament.
Women’s sports have a history of fighting for relevance—particularly basketball. Players have to achieve despite a lack of extensive national TV coverage and have to face the added scrutiny of being considered too “butch” or “masculine” compared to historically “daintier” sports like tennis or golf.
USC has long since been eclipsed by powerhouse programs like UConn and Baylor, but despite the lack of acknowledgment and mediocre record, the Women of Troy have a slew of talent that deserves recognition.
Sibling scorers and a roster full of talent
“Golden State! Golden State!” Minyon Moore called as she brought the ball up the court. The team spent the last 15 minutes of a recent practice running a pick-up game with situational plays. Aside from leading the play calling, the junior point guard also leads the team in scoring, rebounding and assists, and last month became USC’s seventh all-time highest career scorer and fifth all-time in career assists.
“It’s pretty cool in my opinion to get out the game and someone’s like, ‘Oh, you know you beat Cynthia Cooper’s assist record,’” Moore said. “Hopefully, we make the tournament so that we can try to make a run like they did and win a national championship.”
The Women of Troy had an up-and-down season. After starting 9-0, USC struggled to win in the Pac-12, starting 0-7 before getting a first win against rival UCLA in Westwood.
“I would grade the season a high “C” because we haven’t gotten the wins we want in-conference,” Moore said.
But through it all, the comradery of the team, she said, makes it all worth it. “My teammates, they make it fun every year,” she said. “That’s what was worthwhile and that’s a big reason I stayed on this team.”
Despite the rough start, the cardinal-and-gold picked up crucial wins in tough environments like California and Utah with the help of a new key player.
Her older sister, Mariya, transferred from Louisville two years ago, and per NCAA rules sat out the 2017-18 season. Now as a senior, she shares the court with Minyon for the first time since their high school days.
“Having her around is great,” Minyon said. “It’s a blessing—and our family could watch us play for her last year—so it’s dope.”
The Moore’s aren’t the only players who score well, however. Senior guard Aliyah Mazyck also scored her 1,000th career point this season, and freshman Shalexxus Aaron shot 42-percent from beyond-the-arc, earning Pac-12 freshman of the week honors after 26 points against Washington earlier in the year.
The roster is also full of fresh faces. Along with Mariya, starting center Kayla Overbeck transferred to the Trojans after two years at Vanderbilt, and graduate student Cheyanne Wallace, a power forward, joined USC this season after three years at neighboring Loyola Marymount.
Minyon’s game is reminiscent of Russell Westbrook—pure energy to drive into the lane and draw contact. But it also leaves room for her to kick to the sharpshooters, like Mazyck, Aaron and Mariya.
The elder Moore tied the USC women’s record for 3-pointers in a game with seven against Cal on Jan. 6—and her 36 points in that contest were the most by a Trojan in nearly 30 years. But unlike her sister, Mariya has a slightly different mindset.
“Breaking records is cool sometimes, but it doesn’t really matter if we lose,” Mariya said. “We’re focused on winning.”
As the season came to a close, head coach Mark Trakh remained optimistic.
“We got to take it a game at a time,” Trakh said. “We’ll focus on the next practice before we focus on the tournament.”
This is Trakh’s second tenure at Southern California. He was the head coach for five seasons, compiling a 90-64 record, but resigned in 2009 after getting knocked out in the first round of what was then the Pac-10 tournament. He was replaced by Cooper-Dyke, who resigned in 2017 for personal reasons. In his second year since returning, Trakh is steadfast in his zeal for the program.
“The second time is fun,” Trakh said. “It’s an honor to coach here, it’s a dream, it’s a privilege.”
Assistant coach Aarika Hughes–who played under Trakh during his first stint at USC—oversaw the practice, yelling “Let’s go!” Let’s go!” at the top of her lungs, urging the players to pick up the pace.
The game clock looming overhead read 4:00. Trakh appeared from the sidelines in his short build and strong, large face. With a slight hunch in his back, he walked to center court with a calm demeanor wearing a baseball cap and gray-ish casual clothing.
His demeanor stayed calm as he approached Minyon and explained the minute details of the play she was trying to run.
“She’s been the heart and soul of the team,” Trakh said of the Hercules, Calif., native. “Intensity. Passion. Great kid, great energy and great defense.”
USC, a ninth seed, lost in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas to Arizona 76-48 on March 7.
However, the season reached a crescendo a week earlier in an overtime thriller against Utah where over 2,000 fans showed up to honor the senior’s last home game, and students around the L.A. area came for Kid’s Day at the Galen Center.
The Trojans came back from five points down in the last 50 seconds of regulation behind a Mariya step-back three-pointer and clutch game-tying free throws from freshman Desiree Caldwell to send the game to overtime, where the Trojans pulled away with the win.
The team gathered in a massive huddle at center court surrounded by the marching band, blaring “Fight On” through their horns.
The Moore sisters combined for 43 points with plenty of family members in the stands to cheer on Mariya in her last home game.
“It’s just been surreal,” Mariya said of her time at USC. She hopes to head to the WNBA or play ball overseas next year.
Usually, the players run straight through the tunnel and into the locker room. After the Utah game, however, Mariya was hounded at the tunnel by a sea of hands, as over a dozen kids reached over the stands screaming at her in jubilation.
She made sure to high-five every single one.
At that moment, amongst Mariya’s pure, elated smile as she acknowledged her newest fans, USC women’s basketball finally if even for a second, got the recognition it deserved.