The USC Aiken womenís basketball team is off to the best start in program history. It has won its first 12 games, tying a program record for longest winning streak at any point in the season, and is the third-ranked team in the nation. The Pacers moved up one spot in the most recent USA Today/ESPN Division II top-25 Coachesí Poll.
Where theyíre ranked in next weekís poll will have a lot to do with the outcome of tonightís game. USCA will face the team it leaped in the poll today at 5:30 p.m., when it squares off against No. 4 Clayton State in the first-ever womenís top-5 showdown at the Convocation Center.
Itís a huge game that could go a long way in determining the landscape in the Peach Belt Conference and, possibly, all of NCAA Division II. The Pacers are a perfect 5-0 in conference play and sit atop the standings in the PBC East Division. The Lakers (13-0, 6-0) are also undefeated and are alone in first place in the PBC West. Theyíre two of only six remaining unbeaten teams in D-II womenís basketball.
USCA has an edge by playing at home. Itís undefeated (8-0) at the Convocation Center this season and has won its past 25 regular-season games on the home hardwood. Itís worth noting that the Pacers last regular-season loss at home was against Clayton State, when they came out on the short end of a nationally-televised top-20 showdown on Jan. 15, 2011. The biggest battle between the squads since then came last year in the championship game of the PBC Tournament. The Pacers won that game 52-47 to capture their first PBC Tournament championship in program history.
Moving forward to tonightís renewal of the rivalry, the teams are similar in how they play. Both are beating opponents by an average of 19 points per game and, not surprisingly, are the top two teams in the PBC in scoring and points allowed.
The Pacers feature the leagueís top offense, averaging 72.8 points per game, followed by Clayton State second at 69.7. USCAís defense ranks second in the league, allowing only 54 points per game behind Clayton State at 51 points per contest.
As in past seasons, Clayton Stateís patented pressure defense has been a difference maker. In addition to leading the conference, the Lakers are sixth in the nation in fewest points allowed and in field goal percentage defense. Clayton State also leads the PBC in steals and blocked shots and ranks sixth and seventh nationally, respectively, in those two areas.
To date, the teams have faced three common opponents Ė Benedict, Georgia Southwestern and Columbus State. The outcomes have been very similar as USCA and Clayton State prevailed by double digits in all three encounters.
Clayton Stateís coming off an 86-65 win over North Georgia on Saturday. In that win the Lakers were led by Drameka Griggsí 26 points. For the season, the senior guardís averaging 19.1 points per game, third best in the league. She also ranks third in field goal percentage and leads the PBC in steals and free throw percentage.
As to be expected for a team as highly-ranked as the Lakers, Griggs isnít doing it all by herself. Clayton State center Shacamra Jackson is a defensive difference maker, leading the PBC in blocks. Sheís second in the nation with an average of 3.5 blocked shots per game to go along with 9 points and 7.5 rebounds. Senior forward Kayla Mobley and junior guard Bena Hanyard also figure to be factors in the outcome and are combining to average more than 17 points and 12 rebounds per game.
USCAís coming off a 68-60 victory over Montevallo on Saturday. In that win, the Pacers were led by the duo of forward Kayla Harris and guard Daniela Tarailo, who combined to score 33 points. Harris, a preseason All-American, is fourth in the PBC in scoring with an average 18.8 points per game. She also leads the team in rebounding (7.3 per game) and is second in assists (3.7). Tarailoís also among the PBCís top-10 scorers this season, averaging 15.2 points per game, eighth best in the league.
The Pacers arenít an incredibly deep team, but do get significant contributions form all eight players in head coach Mike Brandtís rotation. Junior point guard Brittany Hill is a major contributor with great defense in any of the Pacersí multiple looks and averages a shade less than 7 assists per game to go along with 8 points. Super sub Mackenzie Reese averages nearly 10 points per game on a team-best field-goal percentage (61 percent). She also makes contributions on the boards and especially on defense, where teammates Mia Antoine and Tiffani Moody are at their best.
USCA will need to be at its best to extend its winning streak and make a statement as the best team in the PBC Ė and possibly the nation. Thatís not a stretch, because the only other time two PBC teams ranked in the top 5 played, then No. 2 Clayton State beat top-ranked Lander en route to the 2010-11 national championship.
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 Womenís basketball
Who: No. 3 USCA (12-0, 5-0 PBC) vs. No. 4 Clayton State (13-0, 6-0 PBC)
When: Today, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Convocation Center
USCA: Kayla Harris, Jr. F. The preseason All-American leads the Pacers in scoring and rebounds and has been at her best in some of the higher-profile games USCA has played the past few years, and this game certainly qualifies.
CLAYTON STATE: Drameka Griggs, Sr. G. Only 5-foot-5, Griggs is averaging more than 19 points per game on 55 percent shooting, thanks in large part to her role as the dynamo in the Lakersí pressure, recording 4 steals per game.
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