On Wednesday, the USC Aiken women’s basketball team suffered both insult and injury.
For the first time all season, the Pacers lost a game. The No. 3 team in the nation was knocked off by No. 4 Clayton State, 56-50, in a top-5 showdown.
While the setback was disappointing, the Pacers (12-1, 5-1 Peach Belt Conference) might have lost much more than an undefeated record. Junior forward Kayla Harris injured her leg in the closing minutes of the game and is out indefinitely.
Head coach Mike Brandt said the preseason All-American – who’s leading his team in scoring and rebounding – is definitely out for Saturday’s game at Young Harris College. Harris underwent more tests on the injury Brandt originally said was a dislocated knee cap, but the extent of the injury hasn’t been disclosed. An MRI was scheduled for Thursday night, and the results could provide a more definitive diagnosis.
“We don’t know for sure, but she will not play this weekend,” Brandt said Thursday morning about the injury that will likely force Harris to sit well beyond Saturday, potentially for the rest of the season. “We’re going to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”
Losing Harris for any extended period will be a severe blow for the Pacers to absorb. It will be hard to replace her averages of 18.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, much less her role as one of the team’s premier defenders. Now in her third year as a starter, Harris has also become one of the team leaders and somebody Brandt admires.
“I’m proud of how (Kayla) has grown; she’s a great person,” Brandt said of Harris, who he added was handling the situation pretty well. “She’s done everything I’ve asked of her, on and off the court. As good as she is as a player, she’s an even better person and teammate.”
There’s no question that Harris’ injury will affect USCA. But if she’s out for one game or the rest of the schedule, Brandt won’t spend any time dwelling on the past.
“There’s not much you can do. It’s part of the game, injuries,” he said. “In this type of situation, you’ve got two choices: quit or get motivated. I’m going to continue trying to win.”
Brandt’s optimistic approach is well grounded. As dynamic as Harris is, she’s not the only reason the Pacers are ranked third. They’re a well-balanced team that can shut opponents down with a number of looks on defense. They also have other capable scorers who have shown the ability to put points on the board. Now, they’ll be called on to do it more consistently.
“The good thing about the team and our system is we’re a continuity offense,” Brandt explained, indicating that USCA isn’t overly reliant on any individual player. “We include everybody. We actually don’t have that many plays just for Kayla, so we won’t have to recreate the offense. This will have to be a team effort, and everybody will try to pick up the slack.”
The first hurdle for the Pacers to overcome, even if Harris were in top health, is rebounding from the loss to Clayton State. Brandt’s looking to see how his players respond and where their morale is.
Just like injuries, adversity is part of the game, and this is the greatest challenge USCA has faced to date this season.
Rather than focus on the negative aspects of the team’s lone setback, Brandt’s taking a positive approach. On a night when the Pacers shot a woeful 25.9 percent from the floor, including just 13.8 percent in the second half, they were tied at 50-all with 34 seconds to play against the fourth-ranked team in the nation.
“We were competing and fighting. I like our character,” said Brandt, who added it’s not likely his squad will face another team the rest of the regular season that plays defense as well as Clayton State, a team loaded with fast and athletic players. “We want to learn from it and instill confidence that we can face a team that tough and still be successful.
“We need to focus on better execution, but I believe we’re a great team worthy of that ranking. We’re doing a lot of things right.”
Not just one player has led USCA to this point, and if its going to regain its winning form, more than one player will have to step forward. With Harris out, the burden will become greater for guards Daniela Tarailo and Brittany Hill, both of whom are playing at All-Conference levels this season. But the Pacers who could do the most to try and replace Harris’ production are front court players Porsha Martin, Tiffani Moody and Mackenzie Reese.
Martin has a very similar skill set to Harris but will need to be more disciplined and consistent. She had a strong showing against Clayton State, posting a double-double with 10 points and 15 rebounds. Moody logged more minutes than her average on the season and pulled down nine rebounds. She’ll definitely be called on to provide solid team defense in Harris’ absence, as will the versatile Reese, who could assume some of the defensive responsibilities Harris held down. Her on-ball performance will be just as important as the points she provides, a total that could go up with more shot opportunities.
“The goal is the same as if we had Kayla – get a win,” Brandt said of the outlook for the upcoming two-game road trip to Young Harris and North Georgia on Monday. “We’ll have the same focus. Expectations are not going to change. We want to get back from the road trip undefeated.”
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.