The USC Aiken women’s basketball program suffered a major blow recently when rising seniors and top players Kayla Harris and Brittany Hill transferred to Wingate University.


Pacer head coach Mike Brandt had no comment on the situation other than to confirm that both Harris and Hill asked for, and were granted, releases from their commitments to USCA. Both will have one season of eligibility remaining. In addition to Harris, a preseason All-American last year, and Hill, a second-team selection on the All-Peach Belt Conference Team, reserve guard Michelle Turner was also granted a release after her freshman season.


“The program is just headed in a direction I didn’t agree with, so I decided it was best for me to remove myself from that situation,” Harris said of her decision.


Hill, who will have to sit out the upcoming season because this is the second time she has transferred after going from Quinnipiac to USCA, echoed Harris’ sentiments.


“I just want to finish my basketball career at a place I can be successful and grow the most as a person and a player,” Hill said of her choice, which was impacted by issues with the Pacer program as well as the opportunities at Wingate. “There were a lot of changes throughout (last) season, and I felt I should go somewhere else. … It was not one incident. It was just a bunch of little things that piled up.”


The loss of Harris and Hill will have a major impact on a USCA program that was ranked as high as third in the nation this past season. USCA went 22-8 and advanced to the Southeast Regional of the Division II NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season. In her three-year career at USCA, Harris averaged 14.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game and was one of the team’s top defenders. In two seasons, Hill started every game at point guard for the Pacers while averaging 7.4 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game and also was critical player in the Pacers’ defensive strategy.


USCA’s loss figures to be a major gain for Wingate. Bulldogs coach Ann Hancock gushed about Harris and Hill in a statement from the university.


“Kayla has been a dominant force in the Peach Belt. Her ability to score, rebound and find open players will be a great addition on both ends of the floor. She is a true competitor with an intensity which will raise our level of play in every phase of the game. Her passion to be the best is contagious,” said Hancock, who also praised Hill. “Brittany is a true floor general who knows how to run a team and lead others to do more than they thought they could. She is driven to excel in everything on which she sets her sights. Brittany is a blue-collar player who does what others don’t want to do.


“Brittany sets others up to score and gets them the ball where they can be successful. Her defensive effort also sets her apart from others. Brittany has established herself as a leader in the PBC and nationally in assists and steals. She is what a team wants as a point guard, a coach on the floor.”


Brandt got a glimpse at what life without Harris would be like last season. The preseason All-America and All-PBC forward went down with a torn ACL and MCL after only 13 games. Her absence was felt as the team with realistic national championship aspirations was never quite the same the rest of the way, going 10-7 without Harris.


The departure of Harris and Hill will be magnified for the Pacers, who will also be without four graduating seniors, a group that combined to account for more than 53 points and 25 rebounds per game last season. The seniors included starting guards Daniela Tarailo, an All-PBC first-team selection, and Mia Antoine, while Tiffany Moody was the team’s top front court player off the bench. Reserve Hillary Spears is the other graduating senior, leaving only Porsha Martin and Mackenzie Reese as regulars returning.


“I didn’t foresee any of this coming back when I got injured,” Harris said of the idea that the Jan. 16 showdown against Clayton State would be the last she played in a Pacer uniform. “I love the fans, my teammates and all of the support I received from the community in Aiken.”


Hill, again, was on a similar wavelength as Harris.


“I’m really sad to leave Aiken, I love the area,” the member of the PBC All-Academic team said. “There are professors there that I can’t thank enough and friends I made that I’ll always be in touch with. Unfortunately, I had to make the right move for me.”


Both players have been a major part of the most successful years in program history. In Harris’ freshman season, she was the team’s top scorer and helped lead USCA to a victory over the then No. 1-ranked team in the nation as well as the first NCAA Tournament victory in program history. Joined by Hill the following season, USCA captured its first PBC Tournament championship and hosted the Southeast Regional.


Harris said the conference championship run was one of the fondest memories she had from her time with the Pacers. She had a storied career with the Pacers and was on track to become the school’s all-time leading scorer before her injury. While she said it will be difficult leaving behind some of the fans, friends and faculty at USCA, she believes it’s best for her moving forward.


“I’ve always known about Wingate. It was originally my first choice out of high school, but that didn’t work out,” Harris said. “I look forward to playing for Coach Hancock and the new style of play. After doing my research and going through the process, I think they are better suited for me at this point.”


In terms of her recovery from the major knee injury, Harris said she will be ready to go next season. She has been working all summer and has recently started running again. At times over the recovery process she found herself frustrated and feeling like she could do more than the doctors suggested. Overall, she’s pleased with the timetable.


“It’s such a blessing that I’m at this point and will be able to play. I’m very thankful that everything has gone accordingly,” she said.


Harris pointed out that Wingate’s goals aren’t just to win a championship, but to help the players grow and be better as people. The forward from Raleigh, N.C. said that played a major part in her decision.


“I’m excited to learn from coaches who are awesome coaches and know the game. I’m excited how much I’m going to play and grow as a player and person,” said Hill, who was adamant that her decision to transfer was independent of Harris’ move.


The native of Mechanicsville, Va. said she’s happy to already know somebody on the team but won’t actually get to play with Harris again. That’s because she’s being forced to sit out a season – something that weighed heavily on her choice to transfer.


“It was a huge factor. I’m a big competitor, and it’s going to be hard to sit out a year,” Hill said of her choice that was decided by her big picture view. “In the long run, it will be better because I want to coach when I’m older, and I’ll get the opportunity to sit and learn from this perspective this year.”


Noah Feit is the sports editor and Eric Russell is a sports reporter for the Aiken Standard.


USC Aiken women’s basketball


Returning Roster

Player, Pos. Class Ht. Key Stats


• Mackenzie Reese, F Jr. 5-10 8.8 points, 3.7 rebounds 1.3 assists


• Porsha Martin, F Sr. 5-10 9.5 points and 5.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists


• Amaura Brandt, G So. 5-8 Redshirted


• Kassy Johannsen, C So. 6-1 2.1 points and 1.2 rebounds in 6.1 minutes


• Emily O’Rourke, C Jr. 6-2 2.6 points and 2.4 rebounds


Departing Players

Player, Pos. Reason Key stats


• Mia Antoine, G Sr. 6.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists


• Kayla Harris, F Transfer 18.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists


• Brittany Hill, G Transfer 8.1 points, 5.9 assists, 3.0 rebounds


• Tiffany Moody, C Sr. 4.5 points, 5.8 rebounds


• Hillary Spears, F Sr. 0.6 rebounds per game in 3.4 minutes


• Daniela Tarailo, G Sr. 15.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists


• Michelle Turner, G Transfer 1.7 points in 6.0 minutes


WEB ONLY


Kayla Harris

• As a junior, Harris was named to the 2012-13 Preseason All-American team by Women’s Division II Bulletin. In addition, she was named to the Peach Belt Conference Preseason All-PBC squad. Harris started and played in 13 games, averaging 18.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists before an injury sidelined her for the rest of the season.


• Harris averaged 15.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.0 steals per game while scoring in double figures 25 times as a sophomore. She scored 20 points or more in 11 games. Following the season, Harris was selected to the All-Peach Belt Conference first team and the Peach Belt Conference All-Tournament team. In addition, Harris was named honorable mention All-American by the WBCA. She was chosen to the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional All-Tournament Team for the second consecutive season.


• As a starter her freshman year, Harris led the Pacers in scoring with 12.3 points and also chipped in 4.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.0 steals per game. For her efforts, Harris was named the Peach Belt Conference Freshman of the Year and was selected to All-Peach Belt Conference third team. She was also named to the 2011 NCAA Division II Southeast Regional All-Tournament Team.


Brittany Hill

• In her junior season, Hill started every game for the Pacers while also leading the team in minutes with 34.7 per game. Hill’s 5.9 assists per game were second in the conference and fifth in the nation. She also contributed 8.1 points and three rebounds to the Pacers last year.


• In her first season with the Pacers, Hill averaged 6.8 points, 5.2 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game as a sophomore. Her 160 total assists led her team and was second in the conference the same year. She scored double figures seven times during her sophomore season.