The USC Aiken women’s basketball team will tip-off the 2012-13 season today at the Convocation Center when it plays host to Florida Southern. This is the season opener for both teams, and play is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m.


The Pacers are ranked fifth in the nation, and although the Mocs aren’t in the preseason USA Today/ESPN Division II top-25 Coaches’ Poll, they were among the other teams that did receive votes.


USCA returns the majority of players that made up the core of last season’s team that was ranked the entire season and finished with a 27-4 record. The four losses were the fewest in school history, while the 27 wins ties the 2010-11 team for most wins in a season. The Pacers’ winning percentage of .871 was also the best in school history.


USCA’s tremendous season was punctuated by winning the Peach Belt Conference Tournament, the first time in program history the Pacers accomplished the feat. They ended the phenomenal year by playing host to the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional for the first time in school history, and now the Pacers have played in the NCAA Tournament three of the past four years.


Kayla Harris is expected to lead the way for USCA. The junior forward was the Pacers’ leader in scoring (15.8), rebounding (5.9) and blocked shots (0.7) last season and was named a preseason All-America selection by the Women’s Division II Bulletin.


She’s joined returning starters Brittany Hill, Daniela Tarailo and Mia Antoine. In just her first season with the team, Hill led USCA in assists (5.2), steals (2.1) and minutes played (33.0) as the Pacer point guard.


Tarailo and Antoine are senior leaders who do a little of everything for the Pacers, especially playing strong defense. They helped USCA limit opponents to a .369 field goal percentage last season, as the Pacers used a variety of looks to make defense the key to their successful season. It will be an interesting contrast in styles going against Florida Southern, which averaged 68.3 points per game last season on 43 percent shooting from the field.


Other key contributors returning for USCA include Tiffani Moody, Mackenzie Reese and Porsha Martin. Moody will be especially important this season as the senior center be called on to maximize her 6-foot-5 frame and help fill minutes vacated by Hannah DeGraffinreed, who graduated after being named PCB Tournament MVP.


Florida Southern lost three starters from last season’s team that finished with a 24-7 record and was ranked 22nd in the final poll. Among the key returners for the Mocs are junior forward Morgan Lamberg and junior guard Taylor Maldonado. Lamberg averaged 8.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game last season, while Maldonado averaged 7.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. But they will have to compensate for the departure of Michaela Hawley and Megan Dzikas, who combined to average more than 30 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists per game last season.


The biggest change for Florida Southern won’t occur on the hardwood but has already come on the bench. Holly Borchers takes over as the program’s head coach after spending the past six seasons as the top assistant for former coach Jarrod Olson. Olson stepped down following last season to become head coach at Cal Baptist. Although the Mocs have a familiar hand at the wheel, it will be interesting to see how they fare under Borchers.


The Pacers have no such issues, as head coach Mike Brandt is entering his 11th season at USCA. He’s led the Pacers to 54 wins in the past two years, the most in South Carolina during the time period.


The game against Florida Southern is part of five consecutive home games to start the season for the Pacers, who went 13-1 at the Convocation Center last season. They have made the most of their home-court advantage posting a 55-12 regular-season record at during the past five years, including a perfect 12-0 mark in the 2010-11 season.


USCA and Florida Southern will meet for the first time since the Pacers downed the Mocs, 65-54, on Nov. 24, 1990.


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.



Today’s Game

What: USC Aiken women’s basketball season opener


Who: USCA vs. Florida Southern


When: Today, 5:30 p.m.


Where: USCA Convocation Center


STAR WATCH


USCA: Kayla Harris, Jr. F. After two seasons, the preseason All-American selection is already ninth in program history with 885 points and is coming off a season when she scored 20 points or more 11 times.


Florida Southern: Caitlin Lindsey, Fr. G. The Mocs will need contributions from one of their six newcomers, and Lindsey is likely to make an immediate impact after averaging 19.9 points and 4.2 assists last year as a high school senior.