Just over a year after defeating the UC Riverside Highlanders 73-55 in last year’s season opener that sparked a nine-game win-streak, the Trojans seem to be off to a similar start in 2019. They’ve now won their first two games in convincing fashion, and look likely to continue their non-conference winning streak.
Following a 69-53 win at CSU Northridge on Nov. 5, USC returned to the Galen Center for a clash against the Virginia Cavaliers. After a pregame jersey retirement ceremony for Virginia head coach and former Trojan great Tina Thompson, the current Trojans took care of business.
They defeated the Cavaliers 59-49 behind 14 points and 12 rebounds from graduate guard Stephanie Watts. She also recorded five of the team’s 13 blocks – the second most blocks during a game in school history – to go along with her first career double-double.
Through its first two games, USC’s defense has led the charge. The Trojans currently lead the NCAA in defensive rebounds per game with 42 and are sixth in blocks per game with 8.5. These statistics headline why USC is allowing a staunch 51 points per game – good enough to crack the top 50 in the early stages of the season.
If USC proves to be one of the nation’s top defensive teams, then UC Riverside’s high-powered offense should provide a tough but attainable challenge for the Trojans. Despite being 1-2 on the year, the Highlanders’ offense has been impressive, averaging 60 points per game, including lighting up the scoreboard for 70 points in a loss at New Mexico. Senior forward Marina Ewodo scored 22 of those, and her 14.3 points per game average is the highest of anyone playing in this Thursday’s contest.
But UC Riverside’s achilles heel so far has been 3-point shooting. The Highlanders shot for a combined 2-26 in their last two games. Compared to their opponents, the Trojans defend the 3-point line well, as their challengers are shooting at a mere 18.2%.
Despite great play on the defensive end, shooting is restricting USC’s full potential. While there’s still some early-season rust to shake off, the Trojans are only hitting 36.8% of their shots so far this season, with an even lower 21.4% from the 3-point line. These numbers are significantly lower than last season’s first two games, where they shot 45.2% from the field and 38.6% from deep.
This drop-off could be blamed on the absence of their legitimate shooting threat – redshirt sophomore Shalexxus Aaron—who has yet to play this season. However, it is still alarming that the Trojans only hit 3 of their 23 attempted 3-point shots against Virginia. A majority of the team missed all of their attempts, and no Trojan hit more than one long-range shot.
While fixing the offensive and shooting woes will be an emphasis for USC before conference play begins in January, Thursday’s game is shaping up to be a hard-fought battle in the paint. Trojan guards Watts and freshman Endyia Rogers, along with freshmen forward Alissa Pili will need to contribute on the offensive end, as all three average double-digit points this year. Watts is also tasked with leading the defense to what the Trojans hope is another historic night.
In what will be the first of a two-game road trip, catch the Trojans try to continue their hot start at UC Riverside Thursday at 7 p.m.