Coming into the season, it looked like the USC Aiken women’s basketball team had a surefire top-25 showdown on its schedule against a Peach Belt Conference opponent. Although the Pacers (16-2, 9-2) have already played just such a game – a 56-50 loss to Clayton State – they’ll face another, unexpected challenge against a league foe currently ranked in the USA Today/ESPN Division II top-25 Coaches Poll. It will come against their top area rival.
Today at 5:30 p.m., sixth-ranked USCA will tip-off a game against new No. 24 Augusta State, in a game to be played at Christenberry Fieldhouse in Augusta. The Pacers have been ranked in the top 10 all season and have been expected to be one of the elite teams in the PBC and nation overall. The success the Jaguars (15-2, 8-2) have enjoyed is something of a surprise. In the PBC preseason coaches poll – which USCA and Clayton State were both voted as the top-rated team in the league – Augusta State was only tabbed as the ninth-best team in the 14-squad league. Things have changed greatly since that poll was released.
The Jaguars opened the season on an eight-game winning streak. Following back-to-back losses to PBC foes Francis Marion and UNC Pembroke, Augusta State has responded with seven consecutive victories to climb within a ½-game of first-place USCA in the East Division standings.
The Jags haven’t just been winning lately, they’ve been dominating. During the current streak of success, Augusta State has defeated its past four opponents by a shade less than 20 points per game. Its winning formula could look familiar to USCA fans, since Augusta State is beating its opponents by shutting them down with a stifling defense. It’s limiting opponents to a 32.8 shooting percentage from the field and 51.5 points per game – both best in the PBC. Those numbers are even better than the totals posted by USCA and No. 3 Clayton State.
The Jags are led by senior forward Taylor Ayers, who’s averaging 11.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Jemima Ashby has only played in nine games this season for Augusta State but is the team’s leading scorer in those contests with an average of more than 13 points per game. Senior guard Brittany White and junior guard Tanchelle Hollingsworth are also significant contributors, combining for approximately 17 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals per game.
Augusta State has the best statistical defense in the PBC, but USCA isn’t far behind. The Pacers are second in points allowed and fourth in opponents’ field-goal percentage and have been playing especially tough since an unexpected loss at North Georgia on Jan. 21. Since that setback, they’re limiting opponents to less than 46 points per game and just 31 percent shooting from the field.
USCA’s also getting more contributions on offense from a number of players, especially Mackenzie Reese who topped double figures for the second game in a row in Thursday’s win over Flagler, where she scored a team-best 13 points. USCA will need all the offense it can get today in what figures to be a low-scoring, hotly-contested game between two rivals that bring out the best in each other regardless of their records. That makes this game especially interesting since both teams are among the nation’s elite and are playing for supremacy in the East Division.
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 women’s basketball
Who: No. 6 USCA (16-2, 9-2 PBC) at No. 24 Augusta State (15-2, 8-2 PBC)
When: Today, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Christenberry Fieldhouse, Augusta
USCA: Mackenzie Reese, So. G/F. A stat-sheet stuffer, Reese is coming off a game that included 13 points, four rebounds and three assists in Thursday’s win over Flagler.
AUGUSTA STATE: Taylor Ayers, Sr. F. Ayers is one of the Jags’ most important players with averages of 11.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.