Women's college basketball: USC Aiken 71, Catawba 69
By Cam Huffman
AIKEN, S.C. — Anybody who decided to stay at home Friday night and wait until the later rounds to catch USC Aiken’s women’s basketball team in the NCAA Division II Women’s Southeast Regional, missed a classic basketball game in the opening round.
Coming in with nothing to lose, eighth-seeded Catawba (19-11) took the top-seeded Pacers, the No. 7 team in the country, down to the wire at the Convocation Center before coming up two points short in a 71-69 USCA victory. The Pacers advanced to Saturday’s regional semifinal where they will take on Peach Belt Conference rival Lander, the tournament’s No. 4 seed, a 77-68 winner over fifth-seeded Limestone in the evening’s final game.
“Catawba played fantastic,” said a relieved USCA head coach Mike Brandt in the tournament interview room. “They came in and gave us everything they could. We talked before the game that we earned the right to play at home but nobody was going to give us anything. We had to fight, but we had some players step up and we got out with the win.”
Down 3 with 43 ticks remaining, Catawba called timeout to set up a beautiful pick and roll, where Nisha Long, who finished with 19 points, converted a layup to pull her team within 1 with 38 seconds.
The Indians got it back with a chance to take the lead after USCA (27-3) threw it away trying to get the ball inside to Hannah DeGraffinreed, but this time Catawba kicked the ball to the left corner off the same play, where Lauren Lewis launched a potential game-winning 3-pointer. The shot clanged off the rim, and Brittany Hill pulled down the rebound for USCA.
The Pacer point guard knocked down 1 of 2 from the line with four seconds remaining, but after she missed the second Catawba couldn’t get a final look, turning it over when Kayla Harris dove on a loose ball as time expired.
“We’re used to playing in close games,” said Harris, whose team picked up its second NCAA Tournament win in as many years, the first two in school history. “I think that playing close games in the Peach Belt really helped us.”
It was fitting that Harris ended the game with the ball in her hands, considering the damage she did with it all evening long. The sophomore forward, a First Team All-PBC selection, finished with a career-high 28 points on 10 of 15 field goal attempts and a perfect 8-for-8 mark at the free throw line. Catawba never found an answer for Harris’ dribble drive, and the only time she was quiet was when she was sitting on the bench in foul trouble. Harris picked up her third foul early in the second half and got her fourth on the offensive end with a little under 7 minutes left in the game.
“She did the same thing against Clayton State in the (PBC) championship game, so I’m getting used to it,” said Brandt of managing the minutes for his star, who spent 17 minutes of the game sitting on the bench. “It’s not something we like, but it’s just a thing you get a feel for. You want to get her in as much as you can, and she plays very smart.”
Catawba actually held the lead four different times in the second half, thanks largely to the contributions from Long and freshman forward Chloe Bully, who hit five 3-pointers in the game to finish with 19 points.
“When you have a freshman that can remember the plays, you get excited,” said Catawba head coach Angie Morton. “But she came in and was fearless. She plays so hard for her teammates, and she’s just a blessing.”
USCA, though, wouldn’t go away, and continued to throw the ball in the paint, where it outscored the Indians 38-28. DeGraffinreed, USCA’s other First Team All-PBC selection, scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds, marking the second time this year that the Pacers’ dynamic duo has scored 20 or more points each in the same game.
Daniela Tarailo was the other USCA player to end the game in double figures, scoring 10 points on four field goals before fouling out late in the second half. Hill facilitated much of the offense, finishing with five assists and zero turnovers. She also scored seven points.
“I was just trying to do whatever I could to get them the ball,” said Hill of the Pacers’ two post players. “If they weren’t open, I tried not to force it. But I want to win, so if they’re having big games, I’m going to get it to them.”
USCA led by as many as nine points with 4:04 to play in the opening half, but with Harris on the bench with two fouls, the Indians made a late run to tie the game at 31-all at the break.
Catawba never led in the opening 20 minutes after USCA began the game with an 8-0 run, but six second-chance points and 14 in the paint helped keep the Indians close.
“We had a couple defensive breakdowns and some uncharatceristic offensive breakdowns where we were in two different offenses at the same time,” said Brandt, whose team made 18 of 23 free throws in the game, compared to just 8 of 13 for Catawba. “I was disappointed going into the half tied after being up by five with just a couple minutes to go.”
Today’s semifinal is scheduled for a 7 p.m. tip. It will be the third meeting between the Bearcats and Pacers this season. USCA won the first two. Brandt’s club, which set a school record for wins with the quarterfinal victory, will be looking to advance to the regional semifinals for the first time in school history.
Second-seeded Clayton State, ranked sixth in the country, will meet third-seed Wingate at 5 p.m. in today’s other semifinal contest.