AIKEN — As Lander’s players, fans and cheerleaders rushed the court, USC Aiken senior Hannah DeGraffinreed stood bent over near the scorer’s table and sobbed into her hands.
DeGraffinreed was held to just four points and saw her college career come to an end in the top-seeded Lady Pacers’ 61-55 upset loss to fourth-seeded Lander in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II Tournament Southeast Regional.
Lander center Kaylyn Small, a product of Richmond Academy, neutralized DeGraffinreed on the post, holding the Peach Belt Conference Tournament MVP scoreless until 10 minutes left in the second half.
“We needed a special effort,” Lander coach Kevin Pederson said. “We couldn’t have an average game to beat Aiken. We had to have one of our best games to beat USC Aiken.”
After losing to the Lady Pacers twice in the regular season, Lander finally found revenge by emptying the defensive playbook and catching fire from behind the 3-point line. Peach Belt Conference 3-point career record holder Jasmine Judge lived up to her shooting reputation with 12 points on four 3-pointers, all from well behind the arc.
“Jasmine Judge is a special player and we recognize that, so we encourage her to take those shots,” Pederson said. “Jasmine is the one who has the green light. If she catches it, she can shoot it from anywhere.”
Brittni Johnson also hit four 3s and turned in a game-high 24 points as the Lady Bearcats hit 43.5 percent (10 of 23) from the 3-point line.
“They hit some really long 3s, which is characteristic of their game,” USC Aiken coach Mike Brandt said. “If they hit those 3s, they’re going to win. If they miss those 3s, we’re going to get the rebound and I think the game ends up a little bit differently.”
Twelve of the last 13 baskets in the first half either changed the lead or tied the game, but USC Aiken pulled away with a 9-0 run to start the second half. Judge, a former Hephzibah star, hit a pair of deep 3-pointers to kill the surge, and Johnson’s 3 from the left wing with 8:53 remaining tied the game at 48.
While Lander’s pressure came three points at a time, USC Aiken struggled to keep up with ineffective post play. Forward Kayla Harris hit 8 of 21 shots to lead the Lady Pacers with 20 points, but DeGraffinreed managed only three shots and only hit one. Her four points were the lowest since being held to three in a conference road loss at UNC Pembroke in January.
“They were just really physical and I think it was different this night and last night with the foul calls,” DeGraffinreed said. “Usually we’re looking for those fouls and not getting them changed up the game.”
Small’s standout performance extended beyond her defensive shutdown of DeGraffinreed. The senior center led Lander with 13 rebounds and finished with eight points.
“There wasn’t any doubt in my mind we couldn’t get it done,” Small said.