By Rhiannon Potkey
Even before Briana Gilbreath met her new head
USC Athletics coach, she had an idea of what to expect.
The USC sophomore had spent many nights during high school watching NBA games on ESPN Classic.
Gilbreath was riveted by the rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics when it was at its peak in the 1980s.
The “Showtime” Lakers had a rail-thin player named Michael Cooper, whose defensive prowess earned him eight NBA All-Defensive team selections and the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 1987 – three years before Gilbreath was even born.
So when Cooper left the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks to take the job at USC this season, Gilbreath figured his coaching philosophy wouldn’t stray far from his playing strength.
“The main focus point is defense, defense, defense, and knowing Michael Cooper I wasn’t surprised about that at all,” she said. “I have seen him put some defense on Larry Bird, so I was ready for it. Although it’s been really, really tough it is going to be really good for us down the road.”
The Trojans ranked ninth in the Pac-10 Conference last year in scoring defense, giving up 69.1 points per game.
Although some of it could be attributed to USC’s high-scoring style of play, Gilbreath believes the Trojans have to improve defensively if they want to achieve their goals this season.
“Our main focus is to win a championship,” she said. “Last year we didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament and that is one thing we want to do. It starts off with winning the Pac-10 championship. That is our biggest goal right now standing in front us.”
Gilbreath tried her best to make it happen last season as a freshman.
USC fell one game short of reaching the NCAA Tournament, losing to Stanford in the Pac-10 Tournament title game.
Gilbreath became the first USC player since Tina Thompson in 1994 to be named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year.
The 6-foot-1 guard averaged 10.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals and was the only player to start all 32 games for USC.
Over the summer, Gilbreath returned to her hometown of Katy, Texas to train with a former coach. The two analyzed game film and worked on her shortcomings.
“I think one of my main weaknesses was not being as aggressive as I could have been on the offensive end,” Gilbreath said. “It’s definitely something I worked on and I am still working on. But it’s gotten a lot better and I am hoping it shows up on the court. My defense needs to improve as well to be up to our coaches standards.”
Just having a season under her belt has provided Gilbreath with added confidence this year.
“I can definitely tell a difference. Even when the preseason started I felt totally comfortable coming in the gym,” she said. “I went in with a clear head and I know what the college game is going to be about. Last year, I had no idea and was really nervous because nobody ever explained it to me before.”
Coming to USC was a package deal for the 19-year-old Gilbreath.
She and her older sister, Stefanie, 20, played together Cinco Ranch High in Texas and decided they would attend the same college as well.
But while Briana experienced immediate success at USC, Stefanie hasn’t been as fortunate.
Symbolic of USC’s medical misfortune over the last few years, Stefanie’s career has been plagued by injuries.
She redshirted her first season to heal a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) she suffered at the McDonald’s High School All-American Game.
Stefanie suffered a second ACL tear and did not play last season, and recently announced she will sit out a third straight season after tearing her ACL again.
Although Briana has been spared the physical scars, emotionally she can feel her sister’s pain.
“That is somebody I look to a lot for advice and she is my best friend, so for her not to be able to get on the court hurts for her and for me,” she said. “It’s really disappointing for both of us she has to sit out again, so I will play for both of us.”
The Trojans hosted the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament last year at the Galen Center, but were forced to watch four other teams play on their home floor.
Gilbreath is hoping Cooper and his staff can help change the team’s fortunes.
Despite the respect Gilbreath developed for Cooper while watching him on ESPN Classic, her favorite NBA player is former Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen.
Cooper might take issue with Gilbreath’s preference, but he would surely like her reasons.
“His role on the team was so important because he did all the little things,” Gilbreath said of Pippen. “He could score, he got rebounds, he played defense and did everything needed to help the team win championships.”