COLUMBUS, Ga. — The fourth time was the charm for the USC Aiken women.
The ninth-ranked Lady Pacers built a big lead and held on to beat No. 3 Clayton State 52-47 in the Peach Belt Conference Tournament finals on Sunday at Lumpkin Center.
USC Aiken (26-3) had been 0-3 in Peach Belt tournament finals with losses in 2001, ’09 and ’11.
“We talked about before the game that we have had enough of the runner-up trophies,” USC Aiken coach Mike Brandt said. “We didn’t want any more of those. We were hoping to get a championship one.”
Clayton State (28-3) won the Division II national championship last season but not the PBC tournament title. The Lady Lakers lost to USC Aiken in the semifinals last season. They also lost in the semifinals to USC Aiken in 2009.
“Today was our turn not to get off to a great start,” Clayton State coach Dennis Cox said. “They came out real physical and stuck it to us. We didn’t respond real well to that and dug ourselves a hole.”
This was a classic battle of opposite styles. USC Aiken likes to run the shot-clock down and play tight man-to-man defense, while Clayton State is best when it is able to run fast breaks.
Clayton State dictated the style of play in an 86-76 win earlier in the season. This time around, it was USC Aiken who controlled the pace of the game, especially in the first half.
Aiken built a 30-20 halftime lead, closing the first period on a 6-0 run. The Pacers opened the second half on a 7-2 run and led 37-22 with 15:46 left in the game. It was their largest lead of the game.
Clayton State finally starting finding some room to operate in USC Aiken’s tight defense and went on a 20-6 run to close to 43-42 with 7:34 left. Keona Dixon keyed the run with nine points, including a layup after she stole an inbounds pass.
But Brittany Hill and Hannah DeGraffinreed responded with field goals for Aiken to stem the tide and take a 47-42 lead.
Clayton State’s Shannon Smith grabbed a rebound off a missed 3-pointer and put it back in to pull the Lakers to within 2, 49-47, with 1:16 left.
USC Aiken added three free throws to close out the championship.