‘There’s a method to our madness.’ How USC women built the best defense in program history

USC guard Okako Adika (24) and Kayla Williams (4) celebrates.
USC’s Okako Adika (24) and Kayla Williams (4) celebrate after the Trojans’ upset win over Stanford in January. Adika and Williams have been critical to USC’s much-improved defense this season.
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Lindsay Gottlieb knew her defense was good. But she didn’t realize how good.

Allowing just 54.8 points per game, USC is on pace to have the best scoring defense in the program’s NCAA history. Gottlieb, the team’s second-year coach, raised her eyebrows and nodded in modest approval when she heard the fact.

The team’s defense is a perfect combination of personnel, planning and passion. It’s why the No. 8 seed Trojans are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014. They open their tournament run against No. 9 South Dakota State at 5 p.m. in Blacksburg, Va., on Friday. The game will be televised on ESPNews.

It’s more than just hustle and heart behind USC’s Pac-12-leading defense that ranks 18th in the country. Calling the art of defense just energy is an insult by associate head coach Beth Burns’ standards.


“There’s a method to our madness,” the staff’s defensive leader said.

USC is seeded eighth after early prediction of ninth-place finish in Pac-12 and will face No. 9 South Dakota State in the NCAA tournament opener.

In the first year under Gottlieb, the Trojans allowed 64.7 points per game, which ranked 155th in the country. After the season, Gottlieb evaluated the program to start its rebuild in earnest. The first step was reloading on talent through the transfer portal.

Seven players joined, including four that cracked the starting lineup. Kayla Williams, who earned Big West all-defensive team honors at UC Irvine last season, sets the tone at the top of the defense.

The Bishop Montgomery alumna jumped at the opportunity to come to USC this season. The undersized, 5-foot-7 guard got interest from the previous USC coaching staff coming out of high school but never an official offer. Instead, she won Big West Freshman of the Year while at Irvine and earned all-conference first-team honors in back-to-back years.

Having proved herself at UCI, Williams is motivated to make her mark for her hometown school, starting on the defensive end.

“If I get a taller person on me, a lot of people don’t think I can defend them well, so I take that personally,” Williams said. “I feel like I have a lot to prove on the defensive end and I know what I can do so it’s just about honestly proving people wrong.”

On-ball pressure is the foundation of USC’s defense, Burns said. With Williams pressing at the point of attack, the Trojans hope to funnel opponents into the paint.

That’s Rayah Marshall’s domain.

Destiny Littleton finished with 18 points as USC ended No. 2 Stanford’s 39-game Pac-12 winning streak in a 55-46 upset victory.

The sophomore who was named to the Pac-12 all-defensive team is the nation’s second-leading shotblocker with 3.37 per game. Her 91 blocks are third in USC’s single-season history and just four behind Lisa Leslie’s all-time record.

Along with Marshall, the Trojans have 6-foot-2 Minnesota transfer Kadi Sissoko, and 6-foot Okako Adika, a transfer from Texas Christian. The pair has length and switchability. Point guard Destiny Littleton is one of the team’s smartest players, Burns said, and is always in position to call out plays.

The group is “built as well as you can be built,” Gottlieb said.

But even with the personnel in place, it took Burns time to understand her players’ capabilities. She didn’t join the staff until June and the Trojans spent several weeks during the summer just working on fundamental defensive skills.

“When I started, it was like speaking a different language,” said Burns, the winningest head coach in San Diego State history who led the Aztecs to seven NCAA tournament appearances in 15 seasons. “They thought I was crazy.”

Williams’ first impression of Burns was that the coach was “old-school and tough.”

“Tough, tough, tough,” the Pac-12 all-defensive team honorable mention repeats with a smile.

That toughness extends to her players, who are motivated to carry Burns’ defensive gospel onto the court.

“She doesn’t take a play off,” Williams said. “So she doesn’t allow us to take a play off. And that’s what makes us play for 40 minutes.”

USC stays locked in on defense even when its offense struggles. The Trojans have shot worse than 30% from the field in four of their last five games, but still won two of those poor-shooting games. Cashing in on the team’s defensive success by converting on offense was a key talking point after a 56-47 loss to Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, Burns said.

But the veteran coach knows offense can be fickle in March. Courts are suddenly covered in special NCAA branding and reporters and TV cameras pack news conferences. The scene can be especially nerve-wracking for teams that lack experience on the big stage.

Littleton, who helped South Carolina to a national championship last season, knows how it goes. She also knows the value of defense during March after the Gamecocks allowed 45.5 points per game in the tournament last year, the second-lowest mark in history.

“You can’t really control if the ball goes in the hoop, but you can control what you do on defense,” Littleton said. “Ultimately, who gets the most stops wins the game.”

While putting USC in position for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2014, coach Lindsay Gottlieb is also adjusting to life as a mother of two.