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USC's Cassie Harberts happy to have an extended career

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Cassie Harberts played last summer on a USA women's basketball team that won a World University Games gold medal in Russia.

The USC forward had plenty in common with her teammates — except one thing: She was the lone player with no NCAA tournament experience.

On Saturday, the senior from San Clemente will add that to her resume when she leads USC against St. John's in the Trojans' first NCAA tournament game since 2006.

"Yes!" she said, pumping her first, during an on-campus interview, "I can say, 'I'm in there now.'"

Unbeaten Connecticut (34-0) is the top-seeded team in the 64-team tournament that begins with first-round games Saturday and Sunday and concludes with the Final Four on April 6-8 at Nashville.

Ninth-seeded USC (22-12) plays eighth-seeded St. John's (22-10) in the first round of the Louisville regional at Knoxville, Tenn.

The 6-foot-2 Harberts averages 15.6 points and 7.4 rebounds for the Trojans, who are thriving under first-year Coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke.

Cooper-Dyke led USC to national titles as a player in 1983 and 1984, helped the U.S win an Olympic gold medal and won four WNBA titles before she began her coaching career.

Cooper-Dyke said Harberts is "the glue that connects every player" on the Trojans.

"You need a player like that in the WNBA and in the NCAA tournament," Cooper-Dyke said.

Harberts' clutch performance during the Pac-12 Conference tournament helped USC advance.

The Trojans were 18-12 and in danger of falling short of an NCAA tournament bid as they had three times in Harberts' career under former coach Michael Cooper.

Pac-12 tournament victories over Arizona and Arizona State gave the Trojans 20 wins, setting the stage for a semifinal matchup against fourth-ranked Stanford.

USC had never defeated the Cardinal in Harberts' career.

In January, the Trojans lost by 29 points at Stanford. Last month, USC had a 19-point first-half lead at the Galen Center but lost, 64-59.

"In our minds, they were totally beatable," Harberts said, "if we could just play the way we needed for 40 minutes, not 20."

At halftime of the Pac-12 tournament game in Las Vegas, USC and Stanford were tied, 32-32.

Harberts gathered her teammates before they returned to the floor. "I said, 'Look ladies, this could be the last 20 minutes of basketball I'll ever play as a Trojan — I don't want that to be the case.'… Let's put it out there."

Harberts had scored only three points — "I was struggling," she said — but with forward Alexyz Vaioletama and guard Ariya Crook playing well, the Trojans trailed by only three with just more than three minutes left.

That's when Harberts took over.

She scored 10 consecutive points in a span of 1 minute 40 seconds to give the Trojans a 67-60 lead.

"I don't remember that happening," she said. "People were saying, 'Cassie, you scored 10 straight points.' I'm like, 'What are you talking about?' I think it was just a team effort and that allowed me to do my thing."

Harberts fouled out with less than a minute left, but the Trojans hung on for a 72-68 upset. At the buzzer, Harberts rushed the floor with her teammates.

"I was running all over the place," she said. "Every time I looked at one of my seniors, we'd say, 'We're still going. Our season is not over!'"

USC defeated Oregon State the next day to win the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Crook, a junior who was selected as the tournament's most outstanding player, said Harberts' contributions are many. She earns respect in games but also by trying to beat the guards in practice sprints.

She also nurtures younger teammates with an upbeat demeanor.

"When I first came in as a freshman I was very stubborn," Crook said. "Cassie brought it out of me to be more social with the team, interacting and talking, and showing a good attitude.

"She rubbed off on me."

Harberts, a human performance major, is considering a career in nursing or a related medical field. She will explore playing professionally overseas and in the WNBA.

But first, she hopes to make the most of her first NCAA tournament.

"I couldn't imagine a year ending better than this," she said.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter.com: @latimesklein

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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