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UCLA Sports

USC knows it faces a mammoth task in spoiler role at the Pac-12 tournament

Alissa Pili, the Pac-12 freshman of the year, will be looking to help USC play the role of spoiler in the Pac-12 tournament.
Alissa Pili, the Pac-12 freshman of the year, will be looking to help USC play the role of spoiler in the Pac-12 tournament.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Mark Trakh is almost embarrassed by his answer when the USC coach is asked whether he’s looking ahead to a potential rematch against No. 8 UCLA in the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament.

No, Trakh responds before a smile begins to stretch across his face. He knows when it comes to March, things can get “Fast and Furious.”

“We coach the five minutes in front of our nose,” Trakh said with a laugh, paraphrasing Vin Diesel’s character Dominic Toretto from the popular movie franchise.

After months of Pac-12 play that was equal parts competitive and unpredictable, teams reset with postseason desperation. Seventh-seeded USC (16-13 overall, 8-10 Pac-12) begins its tournament play Thursday against No. 10 seed Colorado (16-13, 5-13) at 6 p.m. at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

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Second-seeded UCLA faces the winner Friday in a quarterfinal.

USC has not been past the quarterfinals in the tournament since its improbable championship run in 2014 as the No. 5 seed. After making the tournament final in 2016, the Bruins lost in the semifinals in consecutive years against Oregon.

UCLA’s Michaela Onyenwere and Japreece Dean selected All-Pac-12 first team in a vote by the league’s 12 coaches on Tuesday.

In the midst of the most successful stretch in program history — five 20-win seasons, four straight Sweet 16s, one Elite Eight — UCLA hasn’t won a conference championship since 2006, when the Bruins won the Pac-10 tournament.

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“I think it’s our next step,” UCLA coach Cori Close said. “We’ve developed a very good foundation of excellence. We haven’t won a Pac-12 tournament championship yet, we haven’t been to a Final Four yet. So obviously my job as a leader is to figure out OK, what is the process that we need to fall in love with to be prepared for those kinds of moments and those kinds of opportunities.”

UCLA (25-4, 14-4) had its best Pac-12 finish in Close’s nine-year tenure and the program’s best conference result since 2010-11. The Bruins started the year with 16 straight wins, a school record, and secured their first Bay Area road sweep since 1999.

An upset over No. 7 Stanford in Maples Pavilion signaled to junior Michaela Onyenwere that her team might be good enough for a truly special season. But even then, the All-Pac-12 first-team selection knew the Bruins weren’t performing to the best of their abilities.

With the postseason here, UCLA hopes to finally reach its high ceiling.

Japreece Dean finishes with 16 points and eight assists and Michaela Onyenwere added 15 points and 11 rebounds in UCLA’s 77-54 win over Utah.

“Postseason brings that stuff out of people that wasn’t there before,” Onyenwere said. “It is a new season, we have a clean slate.”

The Trojans, winners of three in a row, see themselves as a potential spoiler in the tournament that includes six teams ranked in the top 25. They already nabbed upset wins over UCLA and No. 14 Oregon State this season.

But USC is limping to Las Vegas after playing only seven players during its last four games. Graduate transfer guard Aliyah Jeune is day to day with a knee injury that’s kept her out for five games. She practiced Tuesday wearing a bulky brace.

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With its short bench, USC finished the season with five freshmen, one sophomore and one senior available. The young group pulled out single-digit victories over Washington State on the road and Utah at home.

The Trojans are accustomed to winning close games, having gone 6-2 in games decided by four points or fewer, despite relying on inexperienced freshmen. The rookies — including Pac-12 freshman of the year Alissa Pili — just have a “knack for basketball,” Desiree Caldwell said.

“I knew they were going to be amazing,” the sophomore point guard said. “But just seeing each and every one of them step up to the plate, step up when they’re needed is just something really special. All of them have just matured in a way that I don’t think any of us really expected.”


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