Harberts has USC surpassing expectations

January 28, 2014 - 8:18pm
USC's Cassie Harberts (No. 11) has helped the Women of Troy to upset victories over cross-town rival UCLA and nationally ranked Colorado and California so far this season. (Photos by Lee Michaelson)

USC's Cassie Harberts (No. 11) has helped the Women of Troy to upset victories over cross-town rival UCLA and nationally ranked Colorado and California so far this season. (Photos by Lee Michaelson)

Cassie Harberts is one of those players whose greatness is easy to take for granted. But the 6-2 senior forward, the Trojans' only four-year starter this season, has quietly helped the unheralded Women of Troy to an unexpected 14-7 overall record and a 7-2 record in conference play, their best in years. Harberts and company have USC standing in second place midway through the Pac-12 women's basketball conference race, with victories over UCLA, Colorado and Cal -- all nationally ranked at various points this season -- to their credit and having taken Arizona State, also ranked, to overtime before falling 94-86. (USC also has a 65-61 preconference victory over San Diego State, who also cracked the national rankings, on its NCAA Selection brag sheet.)

Harberts scores plentifully and consistently. She's one of those players who makes it look easy even when she's working hard, the type who causes eyebrows to rise in surprise when fans check the scoreboard to find she's already in double-digits.

Harberts has started in every game of her Trojan career. Her per-game scoring average has been between 10 and 18 points since she was a freshman; she's currently good for 15.7 points per game overall, 17.3 in conference play.  She began this year ranked No. 16 on the school's all-time scoring list with 1,293 career points. As of Jan. 27, she is now ninth on the list and, failing an injury, is guaranteed to move even higher.

"Cassie is consistent in that she always shows up and she always battles," said assistant coach Evan Unrau, who has worked with Harberts the last two seasons. "She's a work horse - she grinds and grinds."

But though Harberts may be the outspoken leader of this team, which has substantially exceeded all expectations this year, she is still not widely recognized as a "star" among college basketball players in her class. Ironically, that may be due to the diversity of her game.

"She's one of the most skilled post players in the country, but she's overlooked to a degree because her skill set is a bit unorthodox," Unrau said.

Lindsey Sundin played with Harberts at San Clemente High School in Orange County, where she is now an assistant coach. Sundin comes to most USC games, and said much of what Harberts does effectively don't show up in the box score.

"She scores, but she also brings it defensively," Sundin said. "When she's out of a game, you can tell."

Sundin pointed to Harberts' success in her frequent assignments to guard the best players on opposing teams.

"That's not a stat," Sundin said. "Cassie is totally the janitor behind the scenes."

Coach Cynthia Cooper has high praise for Harberts, whom she called both a special player and a complete player.

"She does it on both sides of the court, and that's the blueprint of a true star. She's a player who can get it done on defense, as well as offense, and still be the glue that brings everyone together," Cooper said.

"Cassie just leads us," Cooper said. "She's vocal, she gets everyone together, keeps everyone on the same page, and she's a true, true team player."

Junior forward Alexyz Vaioletama said she and her teammates appreciate Harberts.

"She's a great leader for this team," Vaioletama said. "She makes sure everyone is on the same page. If we need more intensity and focus, she tells us."

While Harberts may be relatively new to the leadership role, she has always been a quick learner. Sundin was a senior at San Clemente when Harberts was a freshman, and one day their coach told them he wanted to pull the newbie up to the varsity team.

"She was kind of a baby giraffe - uncoordinated," Sundin said. "But there was something about her, and we wanted to pull her up to varsity, too."

Harberts made a strong impression from the start.

"She never made those freshman mistakes that most players make," Sundin said. "She learned fast, and became an important part of the team."

In her senior year at San Clemente, Harberts was named a 2010 Parade and WBCA High School All-American. The summer before starting at USC, she helped USA Basketball's U18 team win gold at the World Championships.

The learning - and the accolades - haven't stopped since Harberts, who picked up another gold medal with Team USA at the World University Games last summer, arrived at USC. Harberts was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman Team and the Pac-10 All-Tournament team in her first year with the Trojans. All-Pac-12 honorable mention as a sophomore, Harberts, who is also a regular on the Pac-12 All-Academic Team, went on to be named to the All-Pac-12 Team last season and was tapped by the media for preseason All-Pac-12 honors again this year. She eclipsed the 1,000-career-point mark a year ago, in Jan., 2013, and began the 2013-14 season on the Wooden Watch List. Last week she was named Pac-12 player of the week for the second time in her career, following her 30-point game against Oregon the day before.

Unrau, who has played professionally and coached at other schools, said Harberts has the highest basketball IQ of any player she's ever seen.

"Her ability to listen, comprehend and translate to the court is beyond anything I've ever witnessed," Unrau said.

Harberts' work ethic is also second-to-none, according to her coaches.

"She goes to work every single day to just continue to get better," Cooper said.

Unrau called Harberts an inspiration to her teammates.

"She's fun to coach, and she's easy to coach: she shows up, pays attention and works hard, both on the court and in the classroom," Unrau said.

"You want your best players to be your hardest workers, and she is."