Just as expected, the USC women's basketball team found itself in a physical game Sunday afternoon in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Trojan center Monica Lamb, for one, realized as much the moment she walked to midcourt for the opening tip and overheard three Western Kentucky players reviewing final instructions for the Hilltoppers' planned inside job.
As it turned out, Western Kentucky, with Traci Patton giving away four inches to Lamb, would have been better off asking the Trojans to step outside. To play a perimeter game, that is.
The Hilltoppers from Bowling Green, Ky., had four of their own starters in foul trouble for most of the second half, could never put the Trojans in the same predicament, and there went the game plan. The 6-6 Lamb scored 16 of her game-high 29 points in the final 20 minutes and 6-3 forward Cherie Nelson had 21 rebounds along with 13 points as USC beat Western Kentucky, 81-69, before a Sports Arena crowd of 1,281.
The win put the Trojans, looking for their fifth appearance in the Final Four in seven years, into the West Regional semifinals at Pauley Pavilion, where they will meet Ohio State on Thursday with a 22-7 record. Western Kentucky, which had reached the national semifinals two straight years, finished 24-9.
The Hilltoppers' game plan was no surprise, considering bench strength is one of their biggest assets and front-line depth is probably USC's most well-known weakness. But somewhere between implementation and execution, things didn't work out, almost from the start of the second half.
A little more than a minute into the second half, Patton got her fourth foul. Two minutes later, Tandreia Green picked up No. 4, and 50 seconds after that, Susie Starks joined the club. Finally, Clemette Haskins, the team leader in scoring and assists, made it for with four on Western Kentucky.
Still, the Hilltoppers kept the pressure on the Trojans the rest of the way. The most obvious incident came on a second-half in-bounds play as Melinda Carlson of Western Kentucky kept a close check on Lamb with her elbows, before the clock had even started.
"Things got kind of physical," Lamb said afterward. "That girl had me scared. Usually, when I give my dirty, ugly look, the person will quiet down. But she just gave me that look right back."
In the end, Haskins and Starks, the starting guards, fouled out, the latter after playing just 11 minutes. Patton, the center, made it all the way to 12.
"I don't think the plan backfired," Hilltopper Coach Paul Sanderford said. "We just didn't make the baskets we needed to make.
"We tried to get to Southern Cal's bench and we never could."
USC, which also got 16 points from Karon Howell, gladly accepted any help from the Hilltoppers, for the Trojans were hardly championship-caliber themselves. As a matter of fact, shooting 38.8% from the field (31 of 80) probably isn't up to semifinal standards, either.
"We're going to have to be a little more selective (in the future)," said Trojan Coach Linda Sharp, now a career 18-3 in the playoffs. "We shot too quickly and we didn't utilize the clock well. We'll have to shoot better down the road."
The next stop is Pauley Pavilion.
The tentative lineup Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion has USC playing Ohio State at 7 p.m. and top-seeded Cal State Long Beach meeting Mississippi at 9. That order is expected to become official today. . . . When a flu-ridden USC team faced Ohio State in a December invitational at Coral Gables, Fla., the Buckeyes won, 83-63. . . . Wendy Brown, who set the American indoor triple jump record Saturday in the NCAA championships, is averaging 2.3 points a game as a sophomore forward on the Trojan basketball team. Sunday, after returning from Oklahoma City, Okla., she dressed but did not play. . . . In her final game at the Sports Arena, USC senior guard Rhonda Windham made 3 of 12 shots and had 9 points.