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USC Sports

Alissa Pili’s ‘hating to lose’ tenacity powers her on-court feats for USC

USC freshman forward Alissa Pili drives past UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere during a game on Dec. 29.
USC freshman forward Alissa Pili drives past UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere during a game Dec. 29.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Two UCLA defenders were no match for Alissa Pili. With a quick step and swish of her long, black ponytail that cascades down past her hips, the USC freshman kissed a right-handed layup off the backboard.

The Galen Center, tense from a double-overtime rivalry thriller, erupted. Watching from their living room in Anchorage, the Pili family did the same as Alissa’s three-point play helped to end UCLA’s undefeated season. They always knew “Liss” was made for moments like these.

“Alissa, there’s no fear,” said Billy Pili, her father. “She’s going to go in and compete no matter who it is. She ain’t scared of nobody.”

Alissa was strengthened by her tight-knit family from Alaska, where the eight kids, from 20-year-old Brandon — who is a defensive lineman for the Trojans — to 4-year-old Billy Jr., compete in everything. They race to the car. They track how quickly they have grown, ticking off the measurements on a wall and seeing who was taller at each age. Their home doesn’t include many framed photos on the walls because they’ve all been broken from countless games of indoor basketball and volleyball.

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“My whole life, I’ve been pushed to be the best I can be, from my dad, from my siblings, from my family,” said Alissa, the second-oldest of the eight kids at 18. “Growing up with that kind of mind-set hating to lose and being competitive, it just helped me that much more to achieve what I want to achieve.”

Michaela Onyenwere hits a go-ahead jumper in the paint with 25.7 seconds left and scores seven of her 22 points in overtime in UCLA’s 74-70 win over Cal.

The three-time Gatorade Alaska player of the year is off to a fast start at USC, where she leads the Trojans (12-11, 4-8 Pac-12) in scoring (14.4 points per game) and rebounding (8.0 rebounds).

The bigger the moment, the bigger Pili seems to play. She scored a career-high 28 points in USC’s first game against UCLA — an 83-59 Bruins victory Dec. 29 — then had 19 points and 17 rebounds in the Trojans’ 70-68 victory over UCLA on Jan. 17.

At No. 19 Arizona State and No. 16 Arizona two weeks ago — USC’s first Pac-12 road trip with two ranked opponents — Pili scored 18 and 21 points, respectively, in the losses and was selected Pac-12 freshman of the week for the second time.

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Stepping up in big games is nothing new for Alissa. How else could a prospect from Anchorage Dimond High, with approximately 1,600 students, get noticed?

In Anchorage, no recruiter “even thinks twice to pay a $1,000 ticket to come and freeze their butts off to see somebody,” Billy says with a laugh. So during the summers, when her parents managed to send her to premier tournaments in Chicago or Oregon, Pili knew she had to dominate to gain interest.

“There’s always a lot of talent, but not a lot of people make it out to pursue what they’re trying to do,” Pili said. “I just try to make the best of it and make them proud, make my community proud.”

USC coach Mark Trakh spotted the powerful forward at a club tournament. He noticed how versatile she was: Pili rebounds, confidently shoots three-pointers and handles the ball well.

“She was ready to go on Day 1,” Trakh said.

USC forward Alissa Pili boxes out UCLA’s Chantel Horvat (0) and Camryn Brown (35) as she grabs a defensive rebound during a game at Galen Center on Jan. 17.
USC forward Alissa Pili boxes out UCLA’s Chantel Horvat (0) and Camryn Brown (35) as she grabs a defensive rebound during a game at Galen Center on Jan. 17.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Pili earned her first freshman-of-the-week award after leading the Trojans to the win over the Bruins. With guard Endiya Rogers earning the award once, this is the first time USC has had multiple freshmen win the honor in the same season.

The talented freshman class, which was ranked in the top 10 in recruiting, is a reason why the Trojans are optimistic about their future. The group envisioned immediate success at USC, even though the program hasn’t been in the NCAA tournament since 2014.

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A five-game losing streak to start conference play reset the young players’ expectations.

“Once we got into conference play, we realized that every game was going to be a tough battle,” Pili said, “we gotta come out with high intensity with the whole 40 minutes.”

In conference games, she averages 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds and had three straight double-doubles coinciding with USC’s three-game winning streak.

Pili is used to producing eye-popping numbers. One of the most decorated athletes in Alaska high school history, she holds the state scoring record with 2,614 points and won two basketball state titles, part of her 13-title haul across four sports. While Pili was never limited in her athletic pursuits, she always stayed focused on basketball, seeing how each activity contributed to her hoops success.

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Alissa Pili highlights from January.

Volleyball, in which she won four state titles, helped her with reaction time and her quick second jump. Shot put (four state titles) and discus (two) helped develop an explosive lower body. Wrestling (one state title) was the hardest sport she’s ever tried. It taught her strength, which she still displays on the basketball court while dominating in the post.

“She’s stronger than anything,” said UCLA coach Cori Close. “You just can’t move her so you better win the spacing war and you better hit first because if she hits you first, you’re out of the play so her strength is the first thing. ... She is one of the best freshmen in our conference, certainly, but even around the country.”

Pili’s mother, Heather, noticed how she appeared to excel at every sport compared with her peers as early as third grade. At that time, the family had just moved from Barrow, a northern Alaska city of fewer than 4,500 people known for minus-50-degree Fahrenheit winter days and a two-month stretch from November to January during which the sun never comes up, to Anchorage looking for more ways their kids could play sports. Brandon wanted to play football.

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Now a 6-foot-4, 325-pound defensive lineman for USC, Brandon occasionally shared the football field with his sister. Alissa, who played offensive and defensive line from third to eighth grade, was the only girl on the team. She overpowered boys bigger and older than her.

“She’s basically a girl version of me on the field,” Brandon said.

UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere (21) and USC forward Alissa Pili (35) fight for a lose ball during a game at Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 29.
UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere (21) and USC forward Alissa Pili (35) fight for a lose ball during a game at Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 29.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

While Alissa was getting recruited, Brandon told her to go where she was happiest, not just where he happened to be. Alissa chose USC over Arizona State, Texas Christian, Pepperdine and Gonzaga.

“It’s just a bonus just to get to see her and keep an eye on her,” Brandon said with a laugh.

Brandon is a fixture at Galen Center, where he watches his sister at every home game. He was sitting right behind the basket when Alissa had the game-winning three-point play against UCLA, yelling from the stands to get the ball to his sister.

Once he saw she was under the basket, covered by a smaller player, he knew she was going to score. He’d seen her make that shot for years from when they used to dominate pick-up games together at the local gym against adults.

Billy helped foster his kids’ athletic success by encouraging them to compete in older age groups. A former high school football player, the 5-8 Billy attests he is still the most athletic member of the family. He conquers the family pick-up basketball games, Alissa confirms.

But with the way Alissa is holding her own in the best women’s basketball conference in the nation as a freshman, she believes her dad’s reign as the family champion could be ending soon.

“We’ll have to see when we come back,” Alissa said with a glint in her eye.


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