- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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STANFORD, Calif. -- It's one thing to know your program is getting closer to where it wants to be. It's another to find out just how far there still is to go.
USC looked the gap in the eye on Monday night at Maples Pavilion.
The Women of Troy might be off to their best conference start in four years, but this is still Stanford's league. And for the moment, USC is not in it.
Cynthia Cooper-Dyke's team came to The Farm with hope, a great run of play and a national television audience for the Pac-12's first ESPN2 Big Monday appearance looking to give the fourth-ranked Cardinal a game.
But the Women of Troy turned into just another team that can't keep up, losing 86-59.
"I don't know that it's discouraging," Cooper said. "We will see them again and we will see them at our place. For me, this was a measuring stick and there's still a lot of work to do. This will motivate us to practice harder and to get better."
Stanford is already there. The Cardinal, who have won 18 in a row since losing to Connecticut in the opening week of the season, moved into sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 heading into its Thursday-Sunday set against rival Cal.
Even in an improved Pac-12 that includes a handful of ranked teams, Stanford (19-1 overall, 8-0 Pac-12) is beating conference opponents by a margin of nearly 25 points.
USC couldn't buck that trend Monday because it couldn't hold down Chiney Ogwumike (30 points, 12 rebounds) and it couldn't hit enough shots to stay with Stanford's perimeter shooters. Five Cardinals scored in double figures. Only Ariya Crook and Cassie Harberts hit double digits for the Trojans (14-7, 7-2), who were 2-of-15 from beyond the 3-point arc.
"We came in knowing we were going to have to play a great game," Harberts said. "Coach did talk to us about this being a measuring stick and we took a couple of steps back tonight. I don't think we played as good a defense as we have been playing and we weren't very cohesive on offense."
Cooper-Dyke was troubled, in particular, by her team's defensive lapses. The Cardinal shot nearly 51 percent from the floor and hit seven 3-pointers.
"I asked them at halftime, 'If we are not on their 3-point shooters and we are not on Chiney inside, where exactly are we?'" Cooper-Dyke said. "Stanford played at a speed and a pace that we are not accustomed to and they were very efficient about finding the open player. I thought their ball movement was impeccable."
Cooper-Dyke, who has played basketball at every level, all over the world, knows all about playing at what she called "an elite pace." She knows that teams that play fast like Stanford keep the opponent in reaction mode, and it's hard to dictate the terms of the game when you are reacting all the time.
"It is our goal to play at an elite pace," Cooper-Dyke said.
Slowly she might be getting there for a program that has spent nearly a decade mired in frustration.
Cooper-Dyke, who won two national championships at USC as a player, inherited a USC team that has had a recent history of near-misses, seasons that fell just short of being NCAA-worthy, usually marred by a bad loss or two down the stretch that hurt the Trojans' standing with the selection committee.
USC hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2006.
The nonconference schedule was an exercise in getting acclimated, with losses to the ranked (Oklahoma State and South Carolina) and the unranked (Cal State Northridge and Saint Mary's).
But something shifted when the Pac-12 season started. The Trojans have beaten Colorado (their first win over a ranked opponent since 2011) and Cal, and fell in overtime at Arizona State. They won nine of 10 coming into Maples.
This season's team has already compiled more wins -- 14 -- than they did last season.
But it saw on Monday night that getting better doesn't put you close enough to the best.
"You learn from your mistakes," Cooper-Dyke said. "Basketball is about growing. If you are staying the same, then someone is passing you by. We will learn from this and move on. We can't hold on to it."
Harberts, who recently passed her head coach on the school's all-time scoring list. was the established standout on this team coming into the season, but Crook, the junior guard from Los Angeles, has come on strong. Crook put up 34 points in Friday's upset win over Cal, the most points scored in a game by a USC player since 2002.
Harberts and Crook are combining to score 31.8 points a game.
"I like the way things have been going," Harberts said. "We need to continue it going forward."
The Trojans won't have the luxury -- perhaps mercifully -- to spend much time parsing the meaning of a 28-point loss to the team that sits immediately ahead of them in the Pac-12 standings. They face the Washington schools at home this weekend.
"What it means is, Stanford is in first place and we are in second," Cooper-Dyke said.
And the gap looks big.
Southern California is off to its best Pac-12 start in four years, but was reminded Monday that there is still a long way to go when it comes to closing the gap with league-leader Stanford.