AIKEN — A lowly Francis Marion squad tried to steal a win away from USC Aiken on Senior Night. Instead, the Lady Pacers stole it back.
Point guard Brittany Hill stole the ball with 10 seconds left and pushed up the floor for a Kayla Harris fastbreak bucket that made the difference in a much too-close-for-comfort 65-63 win.
The Lady Patriots, second-to-last in the Peach Belt Conference’s East Division with a 4-14 mark, nearly knocked off a 10th ranked USC Aiken team tied for first in the division and trying to move up in the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional rankings.
The Lady Pacers, ranked second in the latest regional poll released Tuesday, would play host to the first three rounds of the Southeast Regional with a No. 1 ranking – an attractive thought considering Wednesday’s win wrapped up a perfect 12-0 regular season for the Lady Pacers on their home floor.
But the USC Aiken women’s first perfect home mark since the 1977-78 season nearly came crashing down in tragedy on the final regular season home game.
“The first thing I put on the board before the game was intensity and focus. I thought that was a concern,” Lady Pacers coach Mike Brandt said. “I don’t know if it was overlooking them or what. I just think it was a lack of intensity, and that stinks, considering what we’re playing for.”
The game started as expected with USC Aiken (22-3, 15-2) opening up a big lead thanks to an early 11-0 run. Many of the individual statistics pointed to what should have been a blowout win. Senior Hannah DeGraffinreed hit 11 of 12 shots for 23 points and added 11 rebounds. Fellow forward Kayla Harris also scored 23 on 10 of 14 shooting and added six rebounds and four assists.
Hill chipped in with six points, four steals and a game-high 10 assists.
“I would look up sometimes (during the game) and wonder why it was still close,” DeGraffinreed said. “Like, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
The quality individual efforts were negated with poor team play that included 17 turnovers, a 1 for 9 shooting night from the 3-point line and 11 offensive rebounds allowed.
Brandt’s face grimaced with every turnover and he often shook his head in disgust at his team’s shot selection.
“Part of that was just lack of focus, for whatever reason,” Brandt said. “It wasn’t just one person. Everybody contributed. We had people taking uncharacteristic, crazy shots. We didn’t have good defense helpside and didn’t block out.”
Francis Marion never trailed by more than six in the second half and silenced the home crowd when back-to-back 3-point plays from Brittany Christian and T.T. Belcher gave the visiting team a 63-61 lead with 41 seconds left.
Harris tied the game on a layup with 25 seconds remaining. Francis Marion squandered its next possession when Carmella Thompson’s pass was picked off by Hill to start the game-winning fastbreak.