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About all USC can do is wait and see

Times Staff Writer

A week filled with anxiety and anticipation will finally end for the USC women’s basketball team this afternoon, when the Trojans learn whether they’ll make a third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

“We’re all on pins and needles,” said Coach Mark Trakh, whose team will gather at his Newport Beach home for the televised announcement of the tournament field, presumably after gathering up a small army of good-luck charms. “The last two years it was a relaxing week because we knew we were in. Now, I’m not sure, so it makes for a longer week. This year, we’re like, ‘This is going to be interesting.’ ”

USC, which is 17-13 and finished fifth in the Pacific 10 Conference, is the epitome of a bubble team. The Trojans, racked with injuries, did not defeat any team ranked in the top 25 but did not lose to any outside the top 100.

They won twice in three games against Washington, which finished fourth in the Pac-10, but were 0-7 against the conference’s top three teams: Stanford, Arizona State and California. They lost three of their last four games but led in the final minute, on the road, against Cal and Stanford. They reached the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament last week, but then were blown out by Stanford.

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“I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw our name pop up,” Trakh said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t see our name pop up.... I think we’re playing well right now, and as a coach I certainly would like to get a chance in the tournament. Whether we deserve that chance is a decision the selection committee will make.

“Are we one of the top 64 teams in the country? There could be a case that we are, but that’s me looking at it in an optimistic light, hoping we get in.”

In late December, a return trip to the NCAA tournament seemed a distant goal. The Trojans at one point were down to seven available scholarship players because of injuries and lost their first three conference games.

The return of forward Jamie Funn in early January sparked a midseason push that landed the Trojans on the bubble in early March.

“It’s a credit to the kids and to our seniors that the season didn’t go south,” Trakh said. “The fact that we have a shot at this thing is amazing in itself.”

They aren’t counting on it, but the Trojans’ cause might be aided by the fact they are playing host to first- and second-round games in the Galen Center on Saturday and March 19. USC’s presence presumably would boost attendance, and the Trojans have voted not to accept a National Invitation Tournament invitation if they don’t make the NCAA field.

“We’re going to be a pretty fired-up team if we get in and we’re on our home floor,” Trakh said. “If we get in, we’re not going to be an easy out for anybody.”

One local team already knows it’s in. UC Riverside won an automatic invitation to the NCAA tournament by adding the Big West Conference tournament title to its regular-season championship, defeating UC Santa Barbara, 70-67, on Saturday in Anaheim.

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The Highlanders are 21-10, a school record for wins. Last season, Riverside made its first NCAA tournament appearance and lost to top-ranked North Carolina, 75-51, in the first round.

Riverside will be a longshot again this season, with the favorites coming from a list of the usual suspects.

Five of the top seven teams in last week’s Associated Press top 25 -- No. 2 Connecticut, No. 3 North Carolina, No. 4 Tennessee, No. 6 Stanford and No. 7 Maryland -- have won NCAA titles, Tennessee and Connecticut leading the way with 11 between them.

Top-ranked Duke reached the final in 1999 and 2006, losing to Maryland a year ago, and No. 5 Ohio State made it to the final in 1993.

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jerome.crowe@latimes.com


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