AIKEN, S.C. – After trailing by as many as 13 points in the first half, the University of South Carolina Aiken women's basketball team rallied for a 59-54 victory over Clayton State in the first round of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament.
"Anytime we get to the conference tournament, our intensity is higher," head coach Mike Brandt said. "It is great to experience a win, not only for our underclassmen, but also for our seniors as we extend their careers."
The Pacers improve to 18-11 on the young season while the Lakers finish the conference tournament at 17-12.
Senior Mackenzie Reese netted 15 points – and saved the best for last – as it marked her 1,000th of her career. She scored the final three points of the game, which all came at the charity stripe, in the final 22 seconds of action.
"Scoring my 1,000th career point at home means a lot to me," Reese said. "I wasn't going to force anything because we were focused on getting the win."
Emry Tsitouris accounted for 11 points and a game-best 16 rebounds.
"I never doubted us," Tsitouris said. "I knew we'd find a way to win. I just kept calm and tried to grab every rebound possible since they were crucial. It was great that everyone stepped up tonight to help get the win.
"After not stepping up in the second half at GRU Augusta, we knew we had to come out and take care of business immediately after intermission. If we lost, we knew our season would be over and I don't like that feeling at all. We have the mentality of giving it everything we have and leave it all on the court.
"I was thrilled that Mackenzie scored her 1,000th career point tonight, Tsitouris said. "She's the unquestioned leader on the team and someone I've looked up to all season. We were all excited for her to reach that milestone in front of the home fans."
Carly Gilreath and Kassy Johannsen each netted eight points. Johannsen swatted away six shots, had four boards, two assists and a pair of steals. Gilreath contributed five rebounds and two assists.
Amaura Brandt netted seven points and snagged six rebounds while Stephanie Ball chipped in six points. Jasmine Coach and Kate Duff had two points apiece.
For the game, USC Aiken hit 22-of-56 from the floor (39.3 percent), but held Clayton State to 32.3 percent (21-of-65). The Pacers got to the line 14 times, canning 12 attempts (85.7 percent).
Brandt's team out-rebounded the visitors 47-36 and tallied 14 assists on the 22 field goals. USC Aiken dominated in the paint, outscoring the Lakers 32-20. Brandt's team also had 17 points off the bench while limiting Clayton State to six.
"After a bad first half, I knew we needed to bounce back," Reese said. "Whether that meant me doing more or our team coming together and everyone contributing equally, we knew that we had to step up.
"Winning tonight means a lot," Reese stated. "We won the conference when I was a freshman and it feels good to take the first step toward that goal as a senior."
USC Aiken found itself down 5-0 1:59 into the game, but rallied back, taking an 8-5 lead on Gilreath's jumper with 12:11 to play. However, the Lakers embarked on a 15-0 spurt that lasted until Johannsen took a pass from Duff and made a lay-up with 5:52 to go.
With 3:30 to play in the half, Brandt's team trailed by 13. The team cut the deficit to 12 at the break.
After the halftime speech, Reese opened the scoring with four straight points in the second frame for USC Aiken. A pair of free throws by the Lakers quelled the run momentarily, but Brandt hit a three before Reese and Tsitouris nailed back-to-back shots, making it a 34-31 contest.
Gilreath's three-point bucket made it a 37-36 game at the 14:10 mark, but the Pacers quickly found themselves down 48-42 before starting another comeback.
Johannsen got things going with a lay-up and Reese followed it up with a lay-up off a pass from Gilreath. Reese's jumper with 7:02 to play knotted the score. Gilreath hit another deep three-pointer and Tsitouris made a pair of charity tosses, completing the 11-0 run that spanned 3:10 on the clock.
Clayton State pulled within one at 53-52, but Tsitouris made a free throw and Brandt hit a jumper for a four-point edge with 3:02 to go.
A jumper by the visitors made it a two-point game, but a foul by the Lakers put Reese on the line where she connected on her 998th and 999th career points. Clayton State's Yishica Sims attempted a three-pointer in the corner, but Reese swatted away the shot. Another missed jumper by the Lakers allowed Tsitouris to grab the rebound.
Reese was then fouled and calmly netted her 1,000th career point for a five-point lead with five seconds remaining. USC Aiken's defense did not allow another point for Clayton State.
By claiming the win, USC Aiken most likely ended the Lakers' 10-year run in the NCAA Tournament.
The Pacers have to wait until tomorrow to find out their next opponent and the location of the semifinal game.