Lady Pacers thinking big

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After years of dreaming small, the USC Aiken women can tell you the location of this season’s Division II Elite Eight.

USC Aiken forward Kayla Harris (left) and Hannah DeGraffinreed are poised to help lead their team to a deep run in this season's NCAA Division II Tournament.   CHRIS GAY/STAFF
CHRIS GAY/STAFF
USC Aiken forward Kayla Harris (left) and Hannah DeGraffinreed are poised to help lead their team to a deep run in this season's NCAA Division II Tournament.

The nation’s final eight teams will play in late March in San Antonio, Texas.

“We hope to make it all the way to Texas this year,” senior center Hannah De­Graf­­finreed said. “Our defense is one of the top ones in the nation, and defense wins championships.”

After posting a school-record 27-6 season, USC Aiken is back looking to do more. Last season, the Lady Pacers won a share of the Peach Belt Conference East Division, won their first Division II Tour­nament game and became the only team to defeat national champion Clayton State.

The Lady Pacers, who play host to Georgia College in a nonconference contest at 7 tonight at home, are ranked 17th in the nation. They came back to defeat Division I Jack­son­ville earlier this month in a road exhibition.

“I don’t know if that’s something we can be happy with or not,” USC Aiken coach Mike Brandt said. “But that’s where we’re at.”

Last year, the Lady Pacers knocked off Clayton State in the Peach Belt Conference Tour­nament, holding the Lakers to 32 percent shooting in a one-point overtime win.

“I think we can use that as a confidence-builder,” Brandt said. “Prior to that, when I talked about a national championship, there probably was a lot of doubt in the players’ minds. When we set our goals this year of winning a national championship, I think our players honestly, 100 percent believed it’s a possibility.”

USC Aiken has to replace its backcourt, point guard Triahna Harris (128 assists) and shooting guard Nakia Pinkney (9.1 scoring average). Sophomore transfer Brittany Hill will likely start at point guard, while returners Mia Antoine and Brittany Bowen will see time at both guard positions.

Junior Daniela Tarailo (8.9 points a game) will start at small forward, while Harris (12.3 points, 4.5 rebounds a game) and DeGraffinreed (11.9 points, 5.8 rebounds a game) will be in the frontcourt.

Harris, the Peach Belt Fresh­man of the Year, worked in the off-season on dribbling to the left side. DeGraf­finreed worked on extending her shooting range to 15 feet.

“Hannah is as solid as she has been,” Brandt said. “Kayla’s made a lot of improvement over last year.”

USC AIKEN  LADY PACERS

HEAD COACH: Mike Brandt, 10th season

2010-11 RECORD: 27-6 (lost in second round of NCAA Tournament)

KEY RETURNERS: F Kayla Harris (So., 12.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg), C Hannah DeGraffinreed (Sr., 11.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg), G Daniela Tarailo (Jr., 8.9 ppg)

KEY NEWCOMER: G Brittany Hill (So.-TR)

NOTES: The Lady Pacers, who return three starters, are looking to build on their best season in school history. USC Aiken was the only team in the nation last season to defeat national champion Clayton State. In 22 seasons overall, Brandt owns a 420-234 record.

OUTLOOK: USC Aiken is expected to be a force in the Peach Belt Conference. The Lady Pacers have one of the best frontcourt tandems in DeGraffinreed and Harris. USC Aiken has its eyes set on the Elite Eight, but the Lady Pacers have to find a way to get past Clayton State in the postseason.

USC AIKEN WOMEN’S SCHEDULE

• Tonight, Georgia College, 7 p.m.

• Saturday, vs. Ferris State (Greenwood, S.C.), 3 p.m.

• Sunday, vs. Barton (Greenwood, S.C.),  2 p.m.

• Nov. 25, at Catawba,  6 p.m.

• Nov. 26, vs. Barton (Catawba, N.C.), 4 p.m.

• Dec. 1, Limestone, 5:30 p.m.

• Dec. 10, Flagler, 1:30 p.m.

• Dec. 12, Anderson,
7 p.m.

• Dec. 14, Armstrong, 5:30 p.m.

• Dec. 17, at Anderson, 2 p.m.

• Jan. 4, at Francis Marion, 5:30 p.m.

• Jan. 7, Columbus State, 1:30 p.m.

• Jan. 14, at Georgia College, 1:30 p.m.

• Jan. 16, Augusta State, 5:30 p.m.

• Jan. 18, at UNC Pembroke, 5:30 p.m.

• Jan. 21, North Georgia, 5:30 p.m.

• Jan. 23, Georgia Southwestern, 5:30 p.m.

• Jan. 26, at Montevallo, 6:30 p.m.

• Jan. 28, at Clayton State, 1:30 p.m.

• Feb. 4, at Armstrong, 5:30 p.m.

• Feb. 8, at Lander, 5:30 p.m.

• Feb. 11, UNC Pembroke, 5:30 p.m.

• Feb. 15, at Augusta State, 5:30 p.m.

• Feb. 18, Lander, 5:30 p.m.

• Feb. 22, Francis Marion, 5:30 p.m.

• Feb. 25, at Flagler,  1:30 p.m.

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