AIKEN — Kayla Harris has spent much of the her sophomore year at USC Aiken mystifying opposing defenses.
Catawba head coach Angie Morton deciphered the riddle in theory, but the Lady Pacers’ leading scorer still managed to shine in a 71-69 win Friday night in the first round of the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional.
“Even knowing what they want to do, it’s just difficult to stop her and we really didn’t,” Morton said. “The best thing you can do is get her in foul trouble and she still had 28 points.”
Harris picked up two quick fouls and was kept on a short leash the rest of the game, but she used the 23 minutes of playing time she did get to deliver a career-high 28. She went 8 for 8 from the free-throw line, including two with 1:24 left that turned a one-point deficit into the game’s ninth tie then eighth lead change.
Lady Pacers coach Mike Brandt gambled a few times in the second half, playing Harris even after she picked up her fourth foul with 6:39 to play.
“It’s just kind of a thing you get a feel for,” Brandt said. “You want to get her in as much as you can. You don’t want her to get that third or fourth foul. She plays very smart, so I think there’s opportunities to get her in there at times when possibly some other coaches might not get that person in there.”
The hot-shooting forward, whose previous career high came two weeks ago with a 27-point effort to wrap up the regular season at Flagler, sparked the Lady Pacers by hitting 10 of 15 shots from the field and scored 16 points in the second half.
“My teammates get me the ball,” Harris said. “I work to get open and my teammates find me.”
Fellow forward Hannah DeGraffinreed also hit two key free throws in the final minute to seal the win. The Peach Belt Conference Tournament MVP tallied 20 points and seven rebounds.
The win, which matched a school record at 27 for the season, marked only the second time Harris and DeGraffinreed each scored at least 20 points.
“They’re gamers. They like the ball in the second half. They like the ball in the clutch,” Brandt said. “They want to get to the free throw line. They want to get to the basket. So we worked the ball around. We really don’t have a lot of things specifically designed for that. We have some, but it just so happens when you start running the offense, they’re the ones that find those opportunities, being the great players that they are.”
Catawba (19-11) kept the game close thanks to a spark from freshman Chloe Bully, who hit five 3-pointers on her way to 19 points. Her 3 from the left corner with 45 seconds left in the first half sent the eighth-seeded Lady Indians into the locker room tied with No. 1 seed USC Aiken at 31.
Catawba had a shot at securing the upset when a Lady Pacers turnover gave the visiting team possession trailing by one with 16 seconds left. But a 3-point attempt rimmed out, Brittany Hill hit 1 of 2 free throws with 4.5 seconds left and the Lady Indians failed to get a shot off before the buzzer.
Catawba leading scorer Nisha Long suffered a knee injury just before halftime but played through the pain and scored 13 of her 19 points in the second half.