Written by Sarah Bergstrom, USC blog contributor
"Good things come to those who wait," says Alexyz Vaioletama, summarizing the story of her ongoing USC career. After two years of playing for the Trojans, the junior has finally found her stride with the assistance of new head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, who has brought passion, intensity, and love back into the game of basketball for the Women of Troy.
Vaioletama's love of basketball stretches almost as far back as her birth. The game is in her blood as both of her parents played in college, her cousin played in the NBA, and her younger brother is now a freshman playing basketball at Mater Dei. In her time with the Monarchs, she was a McDonald's All-American, ranked as the nation's No. 6 forward by ESPNU, averaged 10.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a senior, and won back-to-back state championships. Hoping to build on her high school success, she set her sights on USC.
"It was different when I got here," says the forward. "The talent is so different from high school when you play in the Pac-12. Here there are people who are faster than you, stronger than you, taller than you. You have to get used to that."
Starting in the first three games of her career, Vaioletama quickly began leaving her mark as a freshman. She played in 28 games throughout the season averaging 4.5 points and 5.1 rebounds. But there was still work to be done. Her sophomore season she continued to improve but failed to see a major breakthrough on the court. She averaged just 4.8 points and 4.6 rebounds playing in 30 games. Then, at the conclusion of the 2012 season, the Women of Troy experienced a coaching change setting in motion what would become Vaioletama's successful junior campaign.
"When Coach Michael Cooper left we were really sad because that's all we knew, he was like a father figure to us," explains the junior captain. "Then Cynthia Cooper came around. We knew her past, we knew she was intense, and we knew how quickly she had turned other programs around. We took that to our advantage. It was bittersweet but we were happy to have another Cooper coming in to help us, not only for the upcoming season but to improve our game individually and as a unit."
Starting from scratch with a new coach wasn't easy and both the team and Coach Cooper had to adjust and spend time learning each other's style of play. But Cooper, the Trojan legend, brought a new level of intensity and commitment, something the team quickly embraced.
"It's definitely been a clean slate. People have bought into what 'SC is all about, what the Trojan Family is all about, what 'Fight On' really means," says Vaioletama. "Cynthia bleeds Cardinal and Gold. There's something about her that makes you want to go harder. Even though you're tired and fatigued, something about her tells you to force yourself through it. We are more passionate than we were before as far as practice, games, and life in general. She brings a kind of energy that we've never received before. That 'Fight On' kind of attitude."
That attitude and that atmosphere have triggered massive change on the court for Vaioletama in her junior season. With a month and a half left to play, she has already scored more points in 17 games than in either of her last two seasons. She's the team's third leading scorer averaging 9.5 points per game and the team's top rebounder with 7.9 rebounds per game. She also has a total of 31 steals and 12 blocks. Cooper-Dyke's coaching philosophy coupled with patience and hard work have allowed Vaioletama to come into her own and become the basketball player she was always capable of being.
"I think overall from freshman year to now the difference has been confidence," Vaioletama said. "I lacked confidence when I got here. Not because I was intimated, but just from that uncertainty in not knowing who I was playing with and not knowing the level of intensity I should be bringing to practice and games."
Coach Cooper has seen the difference as well noting that the junior is finally embracing her role in every aspect of the game.
"I think X is finally maturing into her own," says Cooper. "She's incredibly talented and she's finally starting to play to that level on both sides of the ball. She's a great defender, she's rebounding the ball well, and now she's finally realizing what we expect from her on offense. She can shoot the three, she can penetrate left or right, and she can hit that mid-range jumper. She has the complete package."
Her newfound versatility and confidence were clear last weekend, when the junior scored a career-high 21 points including a game-tying three to send the Trojans to overtime against the Sun Devils. USC ultimately fell to ASU but the game was further evidence of Vaioletama's leadership and improvement this season.
Vaioletama has come into her own in more ways than one. Her Samoan heritage has always been important to her and her family but this season, Vaioletama has been able to share it with her team. It began with the junior teaching her roommate some simple phrases which quickly caught on to the entire team and coaching staff.
"It feels good because I can show them where I come from," she says. "They understand me and I understand them. It feels good to share my culture with those who don't know anything about it. We all have so much fun with it. We're on the court speaking in Samoan and the other team is confused. It's great."
The team chemistry has allowed the Women of Troy to begin this season in an impressive fashion. They hold a 4-1 record in the conference and an 11-6 record overall as they begin to delve deeper into Pac-12 play. Vaioletama is confident her team can reach even greater heights as the season continues.
"I think we've broken out of our old habits and I know people are going to continue to buy into her program," says the Trojan. "Yeah, there are days when we are going to struggle but it's the passion behind everything that makes a difference. Even though we are talented, Coach Cooper always says, 'Hard work beats talent when talent isn't working hard.' I think it's that intensity and that focus that will allow us to continue to see improvement this season."
Tonight the Trojans face Oregon State at the Galen Center at 6 p.m. as USC hopes to continue its dominance at home. Look for Alexyz Vaioletama, the leading scorer in the last two games, to continue to be the "X factor". She's waited, and worked, and finally in her junior season the pieces have begun to fall together. For Vaioletama, every time she takes the court is another opportunity to come forward and play the game she loves.
"For a couple years I had kind of lost the love for the game, but now with Cynthia Cooper, as a whole unit, we've found the love for basketball again," said the junior. "Yeah, granted, it's hard to wake up every day at 5 a.m. for early practices but we just remember that we play for Cynthia Cooper. How many people can say that? How many people can say they've played for a legend?"