Special to the Aiken Standard

Friday night, junior guard Mackenzie Reese lifted the nationally-ranked USC Aiken women’s basketball team to a two-point victory over Anderson University with a last-second layup.

Saturday, Reese and the Pacers – ranked 20th in NCAA Division II – attempted to replicate that dramatic finish, this time against Mount Olive College, with another buzzer-beating shot with 0.3 on the clock. However, this time the junior’s aim just missed the mark and the ball bounced off the rim, closing a game that saw the Pacers fight back from several double-digit deficits.

USCA (1-1) ended up falling 54-53 to the visiting Trojans (1-1) in the final game of the Holley Tractor/Crescent Automotive Conference Challenge that included fellow Peach Belt Conference school Lander University as well as South Atlantic Conference foe Anderson.

“It was obviously a tough game, especially to go up against a team that shot nearly 70 percent from 3-point range in the first half,” said head coach Mike Brandt. “I think the main thing to take away is that we weathered out the storm. I didn’t think (Mount Olive) could do that again in the second half and we played much better defense in the second half. We played two teams this weekend that were in the NCAA Tournament last season so we knew we had a challenge ahead of us.”

Similar to Friday night when several costly turnovers plagued USCA, the Pacers struggled to gain any momentum early on and had to play from behind after going up 5-0, giving the Trojans an opportunity to take the lead off a 3-pointer by Katie Paschal nearly six minutes into the first half. From there, Mount Olive steadily built up its lead with a 15-4 run over a five-minute span in the middle of the opening stanza that included four 3-pointers as the Trojans shot 69.2 percent (9-13) from 3-point range in the half.

Down by 15 (31-16) with five minutes to play in the first half, a spark appeared to be lit for the Pacers as the young squad steadily fought its way back into contention and within seven points (30-37) by the half time buzzer, highlighted by senior Porscha Martin scoring four of the Pacers’ final six points to end the half.

Out of the break, the momentum swung back in favor of the visiting Trojans as they opened the second half with a 9-0 streak in the first seven minutes to open up a 16-point lead, their lead of the contest.

But true to Brandt’s assessment, his young squad showed a lot of fight, drive and resiliency as it once again fought back into contention behind eight points in a three minut span by Reese to go along with another three from newcomer Mariah Durian.

“Pieces are still coming together since we’re such a young team,” said Reese following her second 18-plus point performance in as many games. “We’re learning game-by-game how things are going to go. It just starts with defense. We were in one of our pressure zone defenses and when I was at the top there I just tried to use my length and quickness to get steals and make quick transition baskets.”

Reese ended the game with a team-high 19 points off a 6-for-15 shooting performance from the field. She was a perfect 6-for-6 from the free-throw line and also added eight rebounds in her 40 minutes of work.

Martin also contributed with her experience and made several clutch baskets late in the game, including a free throw with 5:37 remaining to pull USCA within one point. She ended the night with a double-double with 16 points and 11 boards and added in two blocks.

Nearly three minutes clicked off the clock from the 5:37 mark before either team made a bucket, and this time it was Durian drilling her second 3-pointer of the night from the right side of the arc. But the Pacers’ two-point lead was short-lived as Joneiqua Gary answered just 20 seconds later with a 3-pointer of her own that proved to be the game-winner leading up to Reese’s last-second shot attempt.

For Mount Olive, Gary ended the night with a game-high 22 points that included hitting seven 3-pointers. She had 16 of her points in the first half.

“It was a great comeback for us, despite it falling short,” Brandt stated. “We are still working to develop our team and find things out about this group and this is definitely something we are going to learn from and hopefully keep improving on.”

Brandt continued, “It’s hard to define Pacer Basketball and how to overcome these types of situations until you actually play and get into it. We just kept telling them it’s a long game, there’s still time left, just get a shot up and play your game. That’s something I really like about this team. We got way down and could have folded but they fought back and gave us a chance to win there late. I think that speaks volumes about this team, especially moving forward.”

USC Aiken will next hit the road for a pair of games, first at Barton College before getting a rematch with Anderson on the Trojans’ home court.