The USC Aiken women’s basketball team easily won its season opener on Saturday, dispatching Florida Southern 72-51. The Pacers will return to action tonight, and their challenge will get considerably more daunting when they play host to Wingate at 7 p.m. at the Convocation Center.
The Bulldogs (2-0) have already defeated a pair of Peach Belt Conference teams this season, topping Montevallo and UNC Pembroke last weekend in the OrthoCarolina Classic. But those game were played at Cuddy Arena, Wingate’s home court. Tonight’s game will be its first road trip of the regular season, and the Convocation Center is one of the toughest gyms for visitors in the country.
Over the past two years – including playoff games – USCA is 26-1 at home. Much of that is because of the Pacers’ defense. Last season, they limited opponents to a .369 field goal percentage and forced Florida Southern into 30 turnovers last Saturday.
They’ll try and create more chaos against Wingate, which is still in the early stages of learning a new system. That’s because the Bulldogs are under the guidance of Ann Hancock, who was hired as head coach in May. The former UNC Wilmington head coach, as well as assistant at North Carolina and East Carolina, is a Wingate grad who played for the women’s basketball team.
“Wingate was special then, and it is special now,” Hancock told the Wingate athletic department after being hired.
“When you put together the total package, the campus, the people and the tremendous team returning for next year, it was an opportunity I could not turn down.”
She took over a team that advanced to the Sweet 16 last season, posting a 24-8 overall record and 13-5 mark in the South Atlantic Conference. The Bulldogs – the preseason favorite to win the SAC – have returned eight experienced players, including Janitsha Williams. The junior guard earned preseason All-SAC second team honors after averaging 9.9 points per game last year, best among returning players. Another veteran the Bulldogs will lean on is Tish Logan. The senior forward started 24 contests and is Wingate’s top rebounder returning, averaging 5.0 rebounds per game. In two games, Williams is averaging nine points, eight rebounds and four assists per game while Logan has accounted for eight points and more than six rebounds per contest.
Sarah Wollett, another senior, has gotten off to a strong start with an average of 13 points per game and has connected on five shots from 3-point range. But the Bulldogs best player to date has been a newcomer. Freshman Morgan McGee is the team’s leading scorer at this early stage, with an average of 15 points per game from her position in the frontcourt where she plays forward and center. She’s also pulling down seven rebounds per game, but one of her best attributes is an ability to draw fouls and earn trips to the free-throw line where she’s a perfect 14-for-14.
“She is incredibly strong, and she is a woman of few words,” Hancock said of McGee following the win over UNCP. “Morgan comes to the gym ready to play.”
It could be a tremendous battle tonight, if McGee is matched up against USCA All-American forward Kayla Harris. The Pacers’ junior forward didn’t do anything to lessen the tremendous expectations for her on Saturday, when she led USCA with 23 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
She figures to be the central figure for the Pacers tonight, but far from alone. She shared time in the paint against Florida Southern with fellow junior forward Porsha Martin, who contributed 16 points and went 8-for-9 from the field. Senior Daniela Tarailo displayed her versatility with 10 points, five rebounds, five steals and two assists. Point guard Brittany Hill was steady with five points and five assists while Mackenzie Reese and Tiffani Moody came off the bench and combined for 15 points while Mia Antoine was scrappy as usual.
The Pacers will return to action on Saturday, when they play host to Catawba. It’s the third of five consecutive home games to open the season.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.
What: USC Aiken women’s basketball
Who: USCA (1-0) vs. Wingate (2-0)
When: Today, 7 p.m.
Where: USCA Convocation Center
USCA: Daniela Tarailo, Sr. G. Tarailo is a versatile player for the Pacers on both ends of the floor and she’s coming off a 10 point, five rebound, five steal performance.
Wingate: Morgan McGee, Fr. F/C. McGee has had an immediate impact for the Bulldogs, averaging 15 points and seven rebounds in two wins this season.