The USC Aiken women’s basketball team, ranked fifth in the nation in the USA Today/ESPN Division II Coaches’ Poll, has stormed through its first two games this season. After opening with a 72-51 win over Florida Southern, the Pacers dispatched Wingate 72-49 on Wednesday. They’ll look to move their record to 3-0 tonight, when they play host to Catawba. Tip-off at the Convocation Center is slated for 7 p.m.
If USCA plays with the same intensity on defense as it has in the season’s first two games, it will go a long way in helping the squad maintain its perfect record.
The Pacers improved their record to 26-0 over the past three seasons when holding opponents to less than 50 points. In two games, USCA’s opponents have been held to 39 percent shooting from the field and have combined to commit 49 turnovers. That second stat should concern Catawba, which squandered a 20-point lead in its season-opening loss to Fayetteville State mainly because of 34 turnovers – 20 coming in the second half.
While the Indians have to be disappointed with that setback, which was completed by a turnover that became a game-winning transition layup, they can take solace in scoring 88 points. They had three players post double-digit point totals, led by Elizabeth Merritt. The senior center had 28 points, 10 rebounds and went 9-for-12 from the field, the same as senior forward Taylor May, who finished with 21 points. Catawba also got 23 points and eight assists from sophomore point guard Chloe Bully, a native of Belgium. Bully’s one of three foreign-born players on the Indians’ roster, including guards Jelena Ciric and Greta Tamasauskaite.
Catawba – under the guidance of eighth-year head coach Angie Morton – displayed balance and accurate shooting, hitting 58 percent of its shots as a team in the loss. If it maintains that success, it will be USCA’s first test of the season. But it has already shown the capability to generate offense from a number of players in a variety of ways.
Leading the way is preseason All-American selection Kayla Harris, who can score from the post and facing up when she can take a jump shot or attack the basket. The junior forward is averaging 18 points per game but has also handed out 10 assists in the two games. That’s second best on the team behind junior point guard Brittany Hill, who’s got 12 to this point. After only taking five shots from the field in the first game, Hill increased her production against Wingate, making 7 of 12 attempt to provide another scoring threat for the Pacers, especially in transition.
Senior guard Daniela Tarailo, one of the most versatile players on USCA’s roster, was the team’s leading scorer against Wingate with 19 points. Her second double-digit scoring night of the season was fueled by an accurate touch from 3-point range, where she went 5-for-8. That ability to shoot over opposing defenses can force them to stretch which creates post-up opportunities and driving lanes for players like Porsha Martin, who’s averaging more than 13 points per game as an addition to the starting lineup.
Busy players like Mackenzie Reese and Mia Antoine round out the top of head coach Mike Brandt’s rotation. They’re excellent defenders who contribute in all areas and are part of the reason USCA is 27-1 at the Convocation Center over the past two-plus seasons. The only loss came in the Southeast Regional of the D-II NCAA tournament last year after the Pacers defeated Catawba in the opening round. They prevailed 71-69 over a team that returns to the Convocation Center today without three of its top four scorers from last season, with Bully the only returner who averaged more than 10 points per game. Gone too are the top three rebounders and assist leader Nisha Long, so there shouldn’t be too many parallels between today’s game and last season’s playoff contest.
After facing Catawba, USCA will play host to Florida Tech on Nov. 25, the fourth of five 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.