Captain Adams

USC's Jordan Adams is shining in her leadership role with the Trojans.
by February 21, 2015

This past Sunday, on an unseasonably summery winter evening in Berkeley, USC took down Cal 65-54. The Bears’ eight-game win streak was snapped; they hadn’t lost at home all season. Fourteen points from Trojans redshirt-sophomore guard Alexis Lloyd became the story.

A transfer from Virginia Tech just eligible this season, Lloyd packed her most decisive punch through a spinning three-pointer, sunk five feet behind the stripe with just over 6 minutes left in the game. It left her hand as the shot clock buzzer sounded, and fell through the hoop moments later. USC was suddenly up 5 and in rapture, thanks to something straight out of One Shining Moment. “She was the hero,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said afterward of Lloyd. “That shot just deflated us.”

If Lloyd was the hero, then a 6-1 USC guard, also a redshirt-sophomore (but for a different reason) provided the heartbeat. Jordan Adams finished with five points, six assists, six rebounds and three steals, but, as Trojans coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke noted, “What she gives us, you can’t put on a stat sheet.” For example, it was Adams’s deflection of a Mercedes Jefflo pass that allowed Lloyd to nab a steal that effectively sealed the game.

“The thing about Jordan, she is so talented,” Cooper-Dyke continued. “She helps in so many ways. She plays as a forward in the back of our zone defense, she runs point on offense. She inbounds the ball. She morphs into what we need every night.” Then, with a gleam in her eye, Cooper-Dyke added, “If she makes a couple layups, she could’ve had a nice little number line tonight.”

When told this, Adams gives a little chuckle. She’s seated on a folding chair just off the Haas Pavilion court, ice bags Cello-taped tightly ’round both knees. She’d played 40 minutes, she needed the cold. As she spoke to SLAM, her voice rose in earnest when she approached particularly salient points, eyes lighting up like they do in games when she sees a sliver of space appear. Blink and you’ve missed the inch-perfect pass she delivers.

Adams is more austere command than fly-by, fast-paced action. But when she is firing, it’s basketball at its best. Cooper-Dyke had referenced this capability at Pac-12 Media Day last October. The passes. The inflection Cooper-Dyke placed upon that word provided a portal into Adams’s uncanny force. Poise, precision, skill. The road it took to master them. Since she began hooping on the regular in third grade, Adams played against girls three to four years older than her. “I couldn’t jump, I wasn’t big, so I had no other choice but to be a point guard,” she says.

When told of her coach’s comments, of Cooper-Dyke’s exhortation to still see more from her, Adams nods her head, totally cognizant of the intent. “Of course, she’s demanding” Adams says. “[Cooper-Dyke] yells, she has her moments, and some people, from the outside, they see, ‘Oh, she’s tough, she’s this, she’s that.’ But honestly, what she’s saying is right. You just have to understand that she’s trying to help you.”

So, those layups missed? Well, four of Adams’s points against Cal had come from two supremely deft finishes in the lane. And Cooper-Dyke called them “professional-level” moves.

It had been some time since Adams felt the flow. During her senior season at Mater Dei (CA) High, where she was a McDonald’s All-American, she’d worn a clunky brace to help power through a lingering knee problem. Then, in a mid-December game of her freshman season at USC, she suffered an injury to her right knee that forced a medical redshirt. Sitting on the Cal court, so many months removed, she tapped that particular ice-laden joint for emphasis.

“When you get injured and you come back, it’s not necessarily that you’re afraid you’re going to get re-injured—there is a bit of that fear—but the biggest one is that you’re not going to be the same player you were before the knee injury,” Adams says. “Doubt enters your mind, and fear. You feel like you suck, you feel like you’re not good anymore, you feel like you’re not going to live up to the hype. I know I did this—I started to live in my own feelings. It really, really beats you down.”

A cadre of teammates was there to help. So was Cooper-Dyke, one of the all-time greats in women’s basketball, whose energy and verve are such that her players profess to having seen her do cartwheels into 6 a.m. practice. She helped build Adams back up. You’re Jordan Adams! You’re the same Jordan you were in high school, you’ve just got to bring it out. You have that ability, it hasn’t left you. You just have to know it for yourself.

“That’s what I’ve been doing,” Adams says, “getting my mental right.”

Says Cooper-Dyke, “You see a lot more of her confidence now. She’s playing with a little more swag. The real Jordan is coming out. We just need more of it!”

Adams was academic all-conference in ’13-14, and will wrap up her bachelor’s degree in communications (with a minor in business) this spring, before moving on to a graduate program in communications management next fall. This is her second season as a team captain, a role which Lloyd says she performs “perfectly.” When the Cal game ended, Adams’ first instinct was to wrap Lloyd in a bear hug. Game recognize game.

Before games, she is calm. Well, before home games there are Call of Duty showdowns on a split screen between teammates, and they can get a bit rowdy. But once Adams sits down on the bench, with tip-off moments away and fans roaring something considerable, she ducks her head down, shuts her eyes and experiences this moment of complete…calm.

Then, the team captain resurfaces, the one who realizes she has a responsibility for this season’s short-handed side. Ariya Crook, the Trojans’ leading scorer in ’13-14, was dismissed in September. Then, Chyanne Butler and Destinie Gibbs were gone. Kiki Alofaituli, a pivotal member of the surge toward the 2014 Pac-12 tournament title that sealed an NCAA tournament bid, left the team for personal reasons last month. Talented freshmen Mackenzie Calvert and Kristen Simon are scheduled for MRIs on their shoulder and knee, respectively.

Says Adams of the attrition, “Everyone in the country is telling us, we can’t do it this season. But we have talent, we have heart, we can beat good teams. We hung with South Carolina on the road in the season opener. But we have to believe that. We can’t listen to people saying ‘You guys aren’t this, you just lost another player!’ That kind of stuff just brings negativity — you’ve just got to push it out.”

Against the Bears, Adams sensed a nothing-to-lose mentality reverberating from her team. The kind that keys the sort of performances seen toward the end of ’13-14, when USC was one of the hottest teams in the country. On nights like these in Berkeley, celebrating a big win over a great team, Adams can sense a bridge back to what makes the Trojans fearsome.

“We’re down to eight players, but we told each other before (the Cal game), ‘You can’t get tired. You can’t foul out. It’s just not an option.’ We just came out here and believed in one another and Alexis Lloyd stepped up for us so big, so big, tonight,” Adams said, clapping her hands along to each word for emphasis. “She knew that she needed to. We knew our roles. We stepped up.”

It was the kind of hair-raising pep talk her head coach might have given. Seemed perfect somehow to have it come from Adams.

Photos courtesy of David Foley, USC Athletics