Coming into this season, the expectations were high for the USC Aiken women’s basketball team. A No. 5 preseason ranking and preseason All-American will do that.
So far, the Pacers (6-0) are living up to the hype and have risen to No. 3 in the latest USA Today Division II Coaches’ Poll. What’s more impressive is the way they’ve won, averaging a 22-point margin of victory through six games.
Head coach Mike Brandt said that he’s been pleased with the way his team has carried the mantle of a top-5 ranking.
“I think they’ve done a great job of handling it,” he said. “Somebody may slip up and beat us, but I think the longer we go, the pressure will build.”
The Pacers’ leading players have also lived up to individual expectations. All-American selection Kayla Harris is averaging a team-best 19 points and 7.5 rebounds. She started the season with a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double against Florida Southern and had a season-best 25 points in Friday’s road win over Wingate.
Senior captain Daneila Tarailo is averaging 13.2 points per game and has connected on 20 of 39 3-point attempts for a .513 percentage. Fellow captain and junior point guard Brittany Hill leads the team in assists with 5.3 per game and steals per game with 3.8, and the third captain, senior Mia Antoine, is second on the team in rebounds with 4.8 from her guard position.
Brandt said that experience and skill don’t always guarantee a good leader, so the way his top players have come through for the Pacers is impressive.
“I think they’ve done an excellent job of leading,” he said. “I think all four of them have stepped up and different ones at different times.”
The team’s third-leading scorer is sophomore Mackenzie Reese, who is averaging 9.8 points per game off the bench and notched a career-best 18 on Friday against Wingate. She has also hit 6 of 14 3-point attempts (.429) and is averaging 4.2 rebounds, two assists and 2.3 rebounds per contest.
Brandt said he’s known Reese had great potential, but he noted that her improvement from last season to this season is remarkable.
“I think she’s been a very pleasant surprise,” Brandt said. “I think she’s really grown up from the freshman year to the sophomore year.”
The players aren’t the only ones making the best of the Pacers’ good situation. After collecting his 450th career win as a head coach earlier this season, Friday’s win marked Brandt’s 200th win at the USCA helm.
He said the milestone was especially meaningful because of the quality of the competition USCA faces.
“I think it’s very rewarding,” Brandt said. “I think the Peach Belt Conference is one of the toughest conferences in the country.”
That tough PBC play begins this weekend with a Saturday matchup with UNC Pembroke (4-2) at 5:30 p.m., to be followed by the men’s game. With No. 4 Clayton State, undefeated Young Harris and undefeated rival Augusta State also looming on the conference slate, this year’s PBC field looks to be as challenging as ever.
Because of that, Brandt said he’ll remind his players that the team’s goals of a conference title, hosting the Southeast Regional and competing for a national championship will require focus on the task at hand.
“We’ll talk to them and say, ‘We’re tied with UNC Pembroke and everyone else who hasn’t played a conference game at 0-0,’?” he said.
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.