It was a perfect storm for South Carolina-Aiken, and a bad storm for Columbus State.
Those were the paraphrased words of Lady Cougars coach Jonathan Norton after an 82-72 loss to the Lady Pacers knocked his team out in the opening round of the Peach Belt Conference tournament on Thursday at the Lumpkin Center.
With the loss, Columbus State’s (16-11) season comes to an early end. South Carolina-Aiken advanced to the semifinals, where it will face top-ranked Clayton State on Saturday.
“I give Aiken all the credit,” Norton said. “They proved why they are in the top 25. They lost an All-American, and they adjusted well. (Brittany) Hill, (Mia) Antoine and (Porsha) Martin just shot the heck out of the ball.”
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That’s the perfect storm the coach was referring to.
From the outset, the Lady Pacers (21-6) shot at a high percentage. Hill, who had hit just seven 3-pointers all season, knocked down 4 of 5 from long range in the game. The rest of the team was 4 of 11, good enough for a 50-percent clip.
In the first half alone, Aiken knocked down five from beyond the arc, while Columbus State shot seven and came up empty.
“They were just falling tonight, I guess,” said Hill, who finished with 16 points in the game.
Antoine led the Lady Pacers with 17 points and three others got into double-figures: Martin (16 points), Daniela Tarailo (12 points) and Mackenzie Reese (11 points).
“It was tough,” Norton said. “We just had to adjust on the fly. Hill had seven 3-pointers all year. You just don’t count on that. To our girls’ credit, they don’t get down.”
And they didn’t.
Despite falling behind by 11 early, the Lady Cougars battled back to get within three points late in the first half. Junior Chatil Bradford led the charge, scoring 11 of her team-high 17 points in the first half. Seven of those points came in the final seven minutes of the half.
Columbus State was outshot by 14 percent and outrebounded by three in the half, but stayed within eight points, giving itself a chance after the break.
But Aiken took advantage of its size inside, preventing Columbus State from getting good looks, while affording itself looks at the other end.
Norton said that it’s difficult to match up with a team that has such an advantage in size and physicality.
“You can’t teach them to be 6-5,” he said of his players. “I’ve tried. For us, it’s just tough to win in those games because we’re smaller and not as physically strong.”
Bradford didn’t want to let the team get off that easily.
“The defense killed us today,” she said. “We just didn’t execute. We had too many breakdowns.”
“When you’re playing catch-up, you can’t afford those breakdowns,” Norton added.
Columbus State 27 of 31 free throws for the game (87.1 percent) to keep it interesting, but was ultimately unable to overcome Aiken’s tough play.
Aiken coach Mike Brandt said he attributed a lot of his team’s success to the a revitalized confidence that had been broken during a period of four losses in five games down the stretch.
“We had a slump where we didn’t shoot the ball well,” he said. “I think we got it back and got some of our confidence back, hopefully.”
“Last game, we played well and everyone feeds off of that,” Antoine said. “I feel like that carried over to this game.”
Asha Alexander added 15 points for Columbus State. Norton said that despite the loss, his team had a lot to be proud of this season.
“We got 16 wins,” he said. “That’s not all we wanted, but, as John Wooden said, success is being the best you can be. I felt like we had a pretty good season.”
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.