Every day, the USC women's basketball players and coaches think about it, talk about it and swear it won't happen again. Yet it's a nagging fact about last season, the pebble they just can't dig out of their sneakers.
With a 19-12 record, including a 12-6 mark in Pacific 10 Conference play, the Trojans were solid — but not good enough to make the NCAA tournament, the selection committee deemed.
"That's the main thing we say every single day," said junior guard Briana Gilbreath, last season's Pac-10 co-defensive player of the year. " 'Do not leave our destiny in anybody else's hands.' "
The Trojans, whose season begins Friday at 1 p.m. when they play host to Gonzaga at the Galen Center, return three starters from last season's team: Gilbreath (15.1 points, 5.9 rebounds), sharp-shooting junior guard Ashley Corral (15.1 points) and senior center Kari LaPlante (6.8 points, 4.8 rebounds).
They will be joined by a nationally ranked recruiting class, and by guard Jacki Gemelos, the nation's top recruit in 2006 who sat out three seasons because of knee injuries before returning to play last season.
Coach Michael Cooper said Gemelos adds scoring, passing, defense and plenty of basketball smarts. LaPlante added that Gemelos should especially help the team's shooting, which at times — such as in the Trojan's 77-39 loss to then-No. 2 Stanford in February — was abysmal.
USC missed 55 of 67 shots in that game. Since then, Cooper has added rigorous practice drills in which players run themselves ragged before they begin shooting.
"This team has never really been pushed to a limit where they're exhausted and they're still asked to perform at a high level," he said. "That's what we're trying to do."
Cooper expects to play several of his touted freshmen, including speedy point guard Len'Nique Brown and forward Cassie Harberts, whom Gemelos already is promoting as a candidate for Pac-10 freshman of the year. "She's that good," Gemelos said.
USC was picked to finish third in the Pac-10 by league coaches — behind Stanford and UCLA — and Cooper said that spot seems about right. "We can surprise some people," he added.
Cooper said his team is ready to play at a level that would demand an NCAA tournament invitation without the chance of a snub.
"This year is totally up to us," Cooper said, "and we know that from the beginning."