by Matthew Snyder

Since she’d held court throughout the Pac-12 tournament, to the tune of 63 points over four games in four days, Ariya Crook figured that she might as well keep doing just that at the final press conference.

And rightly so.

Crook just been named the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player, and she sat on the podium next to teammates Kiki Alofaituli and Cassie Harberts, and her coach Cynthia Cooper. As she fielded questions, the 5-7 Trojans junior guard was her typical ebullient, downright-hilarious self.

When the questions slowed to a trickle, the moderator leaned in toward Crook and asked her if she’d like to deliver the standard closing line. You bet Crook did. “We’ll take one more question.” Crook informed the audience, nodding serenely and adding a significant pause for effect.

Then, the final question answered, the Trojans began to file off the podium.

Except for Crook. She hung back and leaned into the mic one last time.

“Thank you for your time.”

Then, it was off the podium and into the night—well, not before Trojans sports information director Darcy Couch, standing nearby, joked that after that sterling display, Crook might soon take her job.

Just three weeks ago, this USC team had been written off from the NCAA Tournament. They were in danger of once more fading late and missing the NCAA Tournament. A particularly painful stretch—six losses out of eight during a crucial stretch of the conference season, including a dreary home stand with narrow losses to the Washington schools—could have clobbered any hopes of momentum.

USC entered the conference tournament with an 18-12 record (11-7 Pac-12) and the 5-seed. But when a team is fully focused upon a renaissance, what does seeding matter?

What ensued in Seattle was a roller coaster of a four-game stretch that included several maddening slow starts that sent Cooper’s voice rocketing during timeouts. But this team always recalibrated and found its equilibrium.

And oh, is it fun when they do. Because, paradoxical as it may seem, the Trojans appear at their most serene when they’re flying this way and that about the court.

The Trojans’ run included take-downs of Arizona in the first round, Arizona State in the quarterfinals, Stanford in the semis, and Oregon State in the championship. They finished these games with emphasis, playing their brand of up-tempo, fast-paced basketball. Stars stepped up when they were needed.

And if you want the pulse of this team, look no further than Crook. She finished with 63 points over the four games (15.2 per), including a team-high 16 in the win over the Beavers.

After watching OSU amass a 33-26 halftime lead on the strength of a stifling 2-3 zone that not only slowed USC down but also sapped them of any hint of rhythm, Cooper decided to go for broke. She told her team that they were going to press every time the ball went through the hoop.

For the rest of the game.

“I know they were looking at me crazy,” Cooper said during the post-game presser. “‘We’re going to press all the time?’

“Well, yeah we are. Because we’re going to earn this victory. We work every day, and I know what they’re capable of. So it was my job to get them going.”

During the first media timeout of the game, Cooper had looked at her team in the huddle (a disclaimer: these meetings are not for the faint of heart), sensed their displeasure at that Beavers’ zone, and told them bluntly, “You don’t want to play against a zone? Then defend and run!”

And my word, did they turn it on in a hurry. Just as they’d done in wins over Arizona and Arizona State, and even for stages against Stanford, they sped the Beavers up. They forced turnovers and hit big shots.

“Once we pressed, that got us going,” said Crook, beaming. “Our energy went sky high and we just went on from there.”

That was the biggest difference in the game, said Beavers head coach Scott Rueck. The press was the equivalent of a punch to the mouth. Eliteathleticism springs to mind when you think of USC. The talent was always there. On that night, it fused quite thrillingly with belief and resulted in a 71-62 victory.

When the game was firmly in hand and the final seconds ticking down, Cooper turned toward the Trojans crowd amassed behind her and the band and cheer squad stationed to her right, and let some heavy breaths rise and fall. Then, she began prowling. Right to left, she tread forcefully, soaking it all in.

She’d won an awful lot as a player at USC, but this felt different.

And wasn’t it cool.

***

On a sleepy San Francisco morning in late October of last year, Cooper bounded into a conference room at the Pac-12 headquarters. It was media day, but the reporters just weren’t quite ready for the first-year USC coach.

How’re we all doing today!” Cooper exclaimed, taking her seat with gusto.

As her players will attest, that’s just par for the course when it comes to Coach. “She’s the energizer bunny,” said Harberts. “At 6 a.m. practice every day, she walks into the gym singing and dancing.” It’s said that the odd cartwheel has been seen, too.

The Trojans feed off that. It’s one reason their eyes lit up when they heard they were going to that frenetic, trapping pressure defense in their bid for the conference tourney title. If they were going to win this thing, they were going to do it in their own way. “Since Day 1, Coach has said, Forget about the history and what happened when she played,” said Alofaituli. We have to bring our own identity.”

Does anyone embody it better than Crook? This is one of the most dynamic guards in the country, with one of the most incredible back stories to boot. At Long Beach Poly High, she was a wunderkind, fueling several state titles with her dizzying array of offensive fireworks.

Then, as a high school sophomore, her father passed away. That same year, she suffered a concussion whose lingering effects sidelined her for two months. The next spring, she was cut from USA Basketball U16 trials. When she found out she hadn’t made the team—which, to be quite honest, she was expecting, given her dour performance—team officials told her in the exit interview that while she possessed the requisite talent, she lacked the fitness to unleash it.

Would she wallow in that setback? Hell no. In vintage Crook fashion, she poured herself into personal workouts. There was interval training, core strengthening and hoisting shots until her arms fell limp at her sides. Her father’s memory helped push her through.

When she reached USC, there had always been glimpses of this talent. That overtime win against Cal as a freshman—Crook always seems to step it up against the Bears—when she’d scored all 11 of the Trojans’ points, including the game-winning layup—in the extra period. As a sophomore, she was second on the Trojans in points (13.4), assists (2.9) and steals (1.2).

But when Cooper met with Crook ahead of this first season together, she challenged the guard in a new way. She wanted Crook to improve her focus. She wanted her to become a better leader.

That meant pouring herself into work once more. Getting up at 5 a.m. with her teammates to “run the whole (L.A.) Coliseum,” as Crook put it. Cooper wasn’t going to allow this group to underachieve—not least this pin-balling guard.

“Everyone talks about Cassie, and rightfully so because she does a great job for us, but Crook has been the driving force behind the scenes,” said Cooper.

She fended off an injury at Colorado on January 3, and three weeks later doused Cal at Haas Pavilion with a career-high 34 points. “You see what she did for us in that game, or when we played UCLA the first time (Crook dropped 25),” Cooper said. “When we need a last-second shot or a three-pointer, she steps up.”

Cooper loves to push buttons, challenging players repeatedly to find out what they’ve got within. “Whoever is ‘on’ that night, I like for them to be on the court and have the ball in their hands,” she said.

Take reserve senior forward Kate Oliver, who delivered vital contributions against Arizona and Arizona State. Then, Alexyz Vaioletama had perhaps her performance of the season (19 points, 15 rebounds and priceless defense on Chiney Ogwumike) in the thrilling upset over Stanford. Harberts scored 10 straight points late against the Cardinal to shift a three-point deficit into the eventual 72-68 victory.

But somehow, this narrative always seemed to circle back to Crook. She was the pulse.

Sometimes, that meant understanding what was best for the team in a certain moment. So went the scene after the quarterfinal win over Arizona State, when Crook played just four minutes in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. (At halftime, she had two points. She finished with 13—in 23 minutes.)

Ariya, how difficult was it to only play four minutes in that first half? What was going through your mind?

Cooper, alluding to Crook: “She was going to strangle me.”

Crook, in stride: “It was difficult. I looked at Coach when we were down by nine points. I was like, Coach, put me in! We have nothing to lose! And she was like, ‘No.’”

Cooper: “How did I do it?’

Crook, returning to the question: “It was difficult, but my teammates didn’t give up on me. They told me to pick it up, to be ready, that I was going to go back into the game. The second half was going to be my half. So it was about my teammates at that point. I just played for them, and the second half was ours.”

In the second half, Crook hit a high-arcing three with 5:11 to go that put the Trojans up 54-49 on the Sun Devils. Cooper watched it rise, then fall through twine. She did the only thing she could think of: turned toward the crowd and crossed herself.

Against Stanford, Crook had 15 points and 3 assists, but after committing a crucial turnover, she found herself on the bench with just 4:40 to play and her team down three. Sophomore guard Jordan Adams crouched down in front of her and said, “Get your head in the game!”

Had Cooper heard it, she would have smiled. Well, maybe she’d have waited until after the game was well in hand. But she had to love the way one of her players was channeling her spirit and drive. It was similar to what she’d said to Crook midway through the Arizona State game.

“Play my game! Attack!”

It certainly made an impression, and not just on the Trojans. After that semifinal loss, Stanford coach Tara Vanderveer said of USC, “They really have an excellent team.”

***

So how confident are the Trojans, heading into the Tournament?

“We don’t know who we’re going to play, but we’re confident no matter who we play,” said Cooper. “So, we’re going to be ready.”

They enjoyed the moment in Seattle, hopping up on the podium to receive the tournament trophy, watching the confetti fall, leaf-like, around them.

But come Monday morning, Cooper said with steely stare, it was going to be back to business.

As Harberts and Alofaituli whipped their heads toward her, feigning befuddlement, Cooper informed the audience that strength and conditioning coach Kelly Dormandy had already devised a workout program.

There was a reason USC got into this position in the first place. And you can bet they were raring to get right back to it.

That helped make the scene the following Monday all the more special. USC was holding a viewing party for the NCAA Tournament Selection Show in the Founders Room of the Galen Center. Family members, alumni and athletic department staff were invited to share in what was going to be, blessedly, an anxiety-free event.

So often in recent years, USC had watched the show with hearts in mouths, knowing that they were a long shot to crack the field. Each year, 64 teams were called, and they weren’t one of them. Harberts, the senior, has never danced. But then, she’d never beaten Stanford during her career, either…

This time, they controlled their fate, and put themselves into the fold.

And that’s a cause for a Crook-sized celebration.