When Mackenzie Reese hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the USC Aiken women a 56-55 win over arch-rival Augusta State, it seemed like the team was well on its way to winning the Peach Belt Conference East Division.
That hasn’t been the case.
The Pacers (19-5, 12-5) have struggled in the five games since that Feb. 2 showdown, going 2-3 with losses to teams with a combined .444 winning percentage in PBC play. USCA only remains tied for first in the division because Augusta State (19-5, 12-5) has had its own ups and downs, faring better with a 4-2 record since the teams first met.
But past difficulty can go out the window tonight, when the teams will face each other in rematch at the Convocation Center. As is usually the case when these teams square off, a lot on the line for the game that’s set to tip-off at 5:30 p.m.
It’s a chance for the Jaguars to avenge the earlier heartbreak. It’s an opportunity for the Pacers to reclaim their footing among the elites in the conference as well as the nation, as they dropped to No. 21 in the latest USA Today Division II top-25 Coaches’ Poll. But most of all, it’s a chance for both teams to take control of the division and clinch one of the top seeds for the PBC Tournament.
Should the Pacers win, they would clinch first place in the East Division, since they would’ve swept the season series. A Jag win would still leave the possibility of a first-place tie, but USCA would have to win at UNC Pembroke on Saturday while Augusta State must lose at Flagler.
To win either of their remaining contests, the Pacers have got to be more productive on offense. It’s not surprising they’ve had struggles since All-American forward Kayla Harris went down with a season-ending knee injury. But USCA has been woeful in recent games, only winning when the defense is so dominant it holds opponents to 45 points or less.
In the recent five-game stretch, the Pacers have only made 35 percent (101-for-284) of their field-goal attempts, a figure that extrapolated over the entire season would leave them dead last in the PBC. It hasn’t helped that their struggles have been exaggerated behind the 3-point arc. USCA’s only making 29 percent (19-for-65) of it’s long-distance shots.
Daniela Tarailo, the Pacers’ go-to player on offense since Harris was sidelined, has also struggled recently. Against Augusta State, the senior guard had one of the best games of her career, posting 31 points, eight rebounds, four steals and two assists – including a pass to Reese on the game-winning shot. She was named PBC Player of the Week and followed that with a 22-point, 12-rebound performance in a win over Lander.
Since then, Tarailo who could be named first-team All-PBC has struggled, scoring just 25 points in four games. Tarailo’s the player opposing defenses look to neutralize, making it more difficult to score, but she and her teammates have got to find a way to get her more than 6 points per game if the Pacers are going to return to form.
Tarailo’s teammates must perform more consistently on offense it opponents are zeroing in on her. Porsha Martin has done the best job of stepping up, but players like Reese, point guard Brittany Hill and Mia Antoine have got to be more productive if Tarailo’s double teamed or struggling.
Fortunately for USCA, Augusta State isn’t an offensive powerhouse that’s likely to shoot the lights out at the Convocation Center. Like the Pacers, the Jags are a team that wins games because of tough defense, limiting opponents to 52.2 points per game, the fewest allowed by any PBC team. Opponents are only hitting 34 percent of their shots against the Jags, which they need since they aren’t prolific on offense.
Augusta State averages 62 points per game, close to the bottom of the PBC rankings. It only has two players scoring in double figures, an only Taylor Ayers (11.3 points, 7 rebounds per game) has played in all 24 games this season. Ayers scored 15 points in the loss to USCA, second on the team behind Tanchelle Hollingsworth’s 18. The pacers must also be wary of guard Brittany White, who’s fourth in the PBC with more than five assists per game. Hill is second in that category with more than six per outing.
Tonight’s game has extra meaning for the Pacers since it will be Senior Night at the Convocation Center. Four Pacers are likely playing their final game on the home hardwood, and Tarailo, Antoine, Tiffani Moody as well as Hillary Spears will be recognized for their contributions to the program.
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: USCA (19-5, 12-5 PBC) vs. Augusta State (19-5, 12-5 PBC)
When: 5:30 p.m.
Where: Convocation Center
USCA: Daniela Tarailo, Sr. G. Tarailo scored a career-best 31 points in the first game against Augusta State, but has only totaled 47 in five games since.
Augusta State: Taylor Ayers, Sr. F. Ayers hasn’t started a game but leads the Jags with averages of 11.3 and 7 rebounds per contest.