The importance of earning a first-round bye in the Peach Belt Conference Tournament hasn't gone unnoticed to USC Aiken coach Mike Brandt.
For two extra days, he can sleep in his own bed. His players can attend classes. The team can hold practices in its own gym.
And for two more days, the Lady Pacers' season will live on.
South No. 3 seed Georgia College & State and North No. 6 seed Lander will kick off the Peach Belt Conference Women's Tournament at 3 p.m. today at Christenberry Fieldhouse.
Other first-round matchups include North No. 4 USC Upstate vs. South No. 5 North Florida at 5 p.m. and South No. 4 Kennesaw State vs. North No. 5 Francis Marion at 7.
USC Aiken (19-11), the North No. 2 seed, will play the Georgia College & State-Lander winner in Thursday's quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Augusta State (14-13), the North No. 3 seed, also received a bye and will face South No. 2 seed Columbus State at 8.
"Any time you get a bye, it's in your favor, just because of the parity," Brandt said. "One less game is one less opportunity to lose."
One team with nothing to lose is Armstrong Atlantic State.
Peach Belt commissioner Marvin Vanover banned the Lady Pirates from the tournament after he discovered they used an ineligible player for 28 games.
With the absence of the Savannah, Ga., school, 11 teams will be vying for the tournament championship and an automatic bid into the NCAA Division II Tournament. Last season, Georgia College & State, as the South No. 3 seed, upended regular-season champion Lander in the Peach Belt final.
USC Aiken is seeking its first tournament championship, while Augusta State is just trying to win a game. Lady Jaguars coach Greg Wilson is 0-for-5 in tournament play.
"I don't worry about it," he said. "We've had a couple of situations where we've had byes and the team we play first is the team that wins the tournament.
"It's all about timing and stepping up your game. And we've never stepped up at all."
Augusta State is limping into the tournament. The Lady Jaguars have lost four of their past five games, and junior forward Eva Vodrazkova is playing with a torn meniscus.
Vodrazkova leads the conference in free-throw shooting (88 percent) and averages 10.3 points per game, second behind Brandi Hollingsworth (10.8) in team scoring.
At USC Aiken, Kasey Mills has shouldered the offensive burden. The senior guard has led the team in scoring the past five games, averaging 19 points in those contests, and is fifth in league scoring (13.7).
Brandt, though, doesn't want to rely solely on Mills. He wants his other seniors to get more involved with the offense.
"Lana Mandic and Katie Gebhardt need to shoot the ball with confidence," he said. "They're instructed to shoot the ball when they're open. When they don't, it really hurts us."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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