The No. 5 USC Aiken women’s basketball team began its season Saturday, and for a few minutes before the break, it looked like the Pacers were in for a fight. They re-focused in the second half, though, and pulled away for a 72-51 victory that could’ve been even worse.
Head coach Mike Brandt said the second-half effort, which stretched a 32-26 halftime lead to a 52-33 lead in less than 10 minutes, was thanks in part to the Mocs’ fatigue but also to better execution at both ends of the floor.
“I think we came out a little more focused with our pressure defense, and I think that they got tired,” he said. “And also, we talked about in the locker room about how the better offense you run, even if it takes longer, you’re going to score more points.”
Junior forward Kayla Harris had a double-double in the opener, scoring 23 points and hauling in 10 rebounds to go with five assists and three steals. She said that points in transition were the key to the second-half surge, with the Pacers winning the fast-break points battle 14-0 and scoring 35 points off turnovers.
“We got a lot of transition buckets, and so we just took our time and played as a team,” Harris said.
The home team looked like it was going to cruise from the beginning, with the Pacers opening the game on a 10-0 run. That lead expanded to as many as 11 points in the opening half, but a lengthy scoring drought, coupled with timely baskets by the visitors, cut the lead to 27-26 with less than two minutes remaining before halftime. In all, the Pacers went six minutes without scoring and scored only four points in 8 1/2 minutes.
Brandt said the tight stretch was a result of a combination of things, including the very nature of basketball.
“Basketball is a game of runs, and they’re a pretty good team. They came in after being in the NCAA tournament last year,” he said. “You know teams are going to keep coming after you. ... We went in a slump there without scoring. We had some good shots, just missed them all.”
The Pacers stretched the lead to six with five unanswered points to close the half, and what offense they got in the first half was thanks, in large part, to Harris and Porsha Martin. Harris had 10 points, six boards and four assists at the break, but Martin was the half’s leading scorer for the home team.
The junior had 12 points before halftime and finished the game with 16 points in 18 minutes of play. Brandt said the 5-foot-10 post player’s shots were a result of plays that were run well by her and her teammates.
“She did a great job of scoring,” he said. “I think the main thing was we executed the offense a couple of times and got her some really good looks.”
Point guard Brittany Hill began the second half with an and-one conversion, and the Pacers really didn’t look back. The lead reached its largest with about four minutes remaining in the game with the Pacers up 31 at 71-40, and Brandt put in his reserves.
USCA dominated in nearly every phase of the game. Sparked by a 53 percent second-half field goal percentage, the Pacers won that battle with a 49.2 percent mark to Florida Southern’s 42.1. The Pacers also out-rebounded the Mocs 33-29, had 19 turnovers to the visitors’ 30 and won the matchup at the free-throw line by hitting 10 of 13 free throws (76.9 percent) to Charleston Southern’s 17-of-28 (60.7). Also winning the struggle for points in the paint at 44-22 and off the bench at 18-11, the only major category the Pacers didn’t win was from beyond the arc. They made two of 11 attempts, while the Mocs went 2-of-6.
Both Florida Southern 3-pointers came from Taylor Maldonado, who also led the team in scoring with 18 points. Kirstin McIntyre was also in double digits with 11 points.
Both USCA long balls came off the hand of Daniela Tarailo, who finished with 10 points on the night. Two other Pacers tied Harris for the team lead in assists, with Mia Antoine and Hill also dishing out five.
Harris said the victory to start off the year was just what she and her teammates were hoping for.
“It’s really important to come out and prove to all the teams, ‘Yes, we’re ranked really high, and we deserve that ranking,’” she said. “So I think we came out tonight and really executed and did that.”
USCA will next host Wingate on Wednesday at 7 p.m. as part of a five-game home stretch to start the season.
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.