Cassie Harberts played last summer on a USA women's basketball team that won a World University Games gold medal in Russia.

The USC forward had plenty in common with her teammates — except one thing: She was the lone player with no NCAA tournament experience.

On Saturday, the senior from San Clemente will add that to her resume when she leads USC against St. John's in the Trojans' first NCAA tournament game since 2006.

"Yes!" she said, pumping her first, during an on-campus interview, "I can say, 'I'm in there now.'"

Unbeaten Connecticut (34-0) is the top-seeded team in the 64-team tournament that begins with first-round games Saturday and Sunday and concludes with the Final Four on April 6-8 at Nashville.

Ninth-seeded USC (22-12) plays eighth-seeded St. John's (22-10) in the first round of the Louisville regional at Knoxville, Tenn.

The 6-foot-2 Harberts averages 15.6 points and 7.4 rebounds for the Trojans, who are thriving under first-year Coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke.

Cooper-Dyke led USC to national titles as a player in 1983 and 1984, helped the U.S win an Olympic gold medal and won four WNBA titles before she began her coaching career.

Cooper-Dyke said Harberts is "the glue that connects every player" on the Trojans.

"You need a player like that in the WNBA and in the NCAA tournament," Cooper-Dyke said.

Harberts' clutch performance during the Pac-12 Conference tournament helped USC advance.

The Trojans were 18-12 and in danger of falling short of an NCAA tournament bid as they had three times in Harberts' career under former coach Michael Cooper.

Pac-12 tournament victories over Arizona and Arizona State gave the Trojans 20 wins, setting the stage for a semifinal matchup against fourth-ranked Stanford.

USC had never defeated the Cardinal in Harberts' career.

In January, the Trojans lost by 29 points at Stanford. Last month, USC had a 19-point first-half lead at the Galen Center but lost, 64-59.

"In our minds, they were totally beatable," Harberts said, "if we could just play the way we needed for 40 minutes, not 20."

At halftime of the Pac-12 tournament game in Las Vegas, USC and Stanford were tied, 32-32.

Harberts gathered her teammates before they returned to the floor. "I said, 'Look ladies, this could be the last 20 minutes of basketball I'll ever play as a Trojan — I don't want that to be the case.'… Let's put it out there."

Harberts had scored only three points — "I was struggling," she said — but with forward Alexyz Vaioletama and guard Ariya Crook playing well, the Trojans trailed by only three with just more than three minutes left.

That's when Harberts took over.