Balanced Pacers advance
No. 25 USC AIKEN 82, COLUMBUS STATE 72
By NOAH FEIT
COLUMBUS, Ga. — The USC Aiken women’s basketball team got off to a good start in defense of its Peach Belt Conference Tournament title, defeating Columbus State on its home court Thursday, 82-72.
It was the sixth consecutive victory for the No. 25 Pacers (21-6) at the Frank G. Lumpkin Center, a streak that includes three wins in last year’s PBC Tournament, when they won the event for the first time in program history. To become the conference’s first back-to-back tournament winner since Lander in 2008 and 2009, USCA will have to knock off the No. 1 team in the nation, undefeated Clayton State.
The squads will square off in a tournament semifinal game at 4 p.m. on Saturday at the Columbus State gymnasium. The Lakers whipped Armstrong Atlantic State 76-44 in one of Thursday’s four quarterfinal games.
To advance to the semifinals, the Pacers turned in one of their best offensive performances of the season, scoring more than 80 points in a game for just the third time. It was a balanced effort, with five Pacers scoring in double figures.
“When we move the ball well, hit shots the team looks good. They shot with confidence,” USCA head coach Mike Brandt said of his team, which connected on 48 percent (31-64) of its field-goal attempts. “When you have five players in double figures, that makes you feel good.”
That included a season-best 17 points from Mia Antoine. The senior guard tied Columbus State’s Chatil Bradford for game-high honors. Antoine was 6-for-8 and added six rebounds and four assists.
“It was big, but that’s what you expect from a senior,” Brandt said of Antoine, who was honored prior to the game with the Elite 15 award for the player competing in the championship event with the highest cumulative GPA. “She stepped up and her shot selection was excellent.”
Porsha Martin and Brittany Hill scored 16 points apiece for USCA. Hill had a big game with six assists and four rebounds, but it was her shooting touch that made a difference. The junior point guard usually looks to pass first, but connected on 5 of 8 shots from the field, going 4-for-5 from 3-point range.
“It speaks volumes for Brittany,” Brandt said. “Last season, even in the tournament, teams would sag off of her when she was shooting. She worked hard on her shooting in the offseason.”
Martin had eight rebounds and went 6-for-6 from the free-throw line, part of a perfect performance by the Pacers at the charity stripe. They made all 12 of their attempts in the double-digit win that saw the Cougars connect on 27 of 31 foul shots.
It was the disparity of free throws that kept the game as close as the final 10-point margin, because USCA’s defense limited Columbus State (16-11) to just 34 percent shooting (21-61) from the field. The Pacers were especially effective neutralizing the Cougars outside shooting, taking away one of the best weapons in their arsenal. On the season, which is likely over for Columbus State, it led the PBC in 3-pointers made, connecting at a league-best 37 percent. Against USCA, it made just 3 of 16 tries from long distance, shooting itself in the foot more than in the rim. The Paces set the tone early and Columbus State was 0-for-7 from 3-point range in the first half.
Before she fouled out, Daniela Tarailo scored 12 points and Mackenzie Reese came off the bench with 11 more.
“It’s great to have balance because it makes you stronger. We’ll need that going against Clayton State,” Brandt said. “Tonight, we had no hesitation. When we were struggling a little, there were some times that we hesitated. Tonight there was none and no lack of confidence.”
Brandt said he’s looking for another strong effort on Saturday against Clayton State. Although the Lakers (27-0) beat the Pacers earlier this season, the game was tied with less than 40 seconds to play before Clayton State eked out a 56-50 win. Brandt said that performance, and other recent history against the Lakers should give his veteran team confidence. USCA beat Clayton State in the PBC Tournament championship game last year, and two years ago, when the Lakers were also undefeated, it was the Pacers who handed them their only loss of a national-championship season in a PBC Tournament semifinal game.
“If there’s anybody in this tournament Clayton State doesn’t want to play, I’d say its us because of how well we match up with them,” said Brandt, who admitted he’s glad his squad won’t play today and will have a chance to recover from the Columbus State win as it prepares for Clayton State. “They’re No. 1 and undefeated. There’s no pressure on us, we’ve got nothing to lose. It’s a great situation to be in.”
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.
Women’s PBC Tournament
• USC Aiken 82, Columbus State 72
• Clayton State 76, Armstrong Altantic State 44
• Flagler 72, Montevallo 67
• North Georgia 70, Augusta State 60
• North Georgia vs. Flagler, 2 p.m.
• USC Aiken vs. Clayton State, 4 p.m.