No. 4 USC AIKEN 88, No. 5 CATAWBA 79
AUGUSTA -- The USC Aiken men's basketball team knew something was going to have to change in the second half Saturday night.
The fourth-seeded Pacers carried a four-point lead over fifth-seeded Catawba into the break, but allowing 53.3% shooting was something that couldn't continue if USCA wanted to extend its season.
The Pacers knew they didn't play defense the way they were supposed to for the first 20 minutes, so in the second half they got locked in and brought the sense of urgency that is required to advance in the NCAA Tournament.
USCA held Catawba to just 27.8% shooting in the second half and steadily built its lead, closing the door on an 88-79 win to set up a meeting with top-seeded Augusta at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Christenberry Fieldhouse.
"Any time you can walk away from an NCAA Tournament game with a win, you've got to have your shoulders back and your chin up because the NCAA Tournament is a totally different beast," USCA head coach Mark Vanderslice said. "People come out of the woodwork that maybe you've never seen or never would've expected to play well that have career games.
"... At the end of the day, that tale of two halves defensively from the first half to the second half was really the telltale stat. ... That stat alone really was the difference in the game. To hold a team under 42% should always be your goal, but to get there after giving up 53% in the first half was something I was proud of."
USCA (23-8) overcame a seven-point deficit in the first half, out-pacing Catawba (23-8) offensively by shooting 56.7% for the first 20 minutes. Then the Pacers took control on defense and on the boards (USCA was plus-12 in rebounding) to overcome 15 turnovers and advance.
Tyler Johnson continued his strong play by scoring a game-high 24 points with four made 3-pointers. Jalen McCoy scored 18 points in 7-for-10 shooting, Tehree Horn scored 18 points with eight rebounds, Karon Boyd hit a pair of 3s on his way to 12 points, and Demitrios Dixon scored 10. Samba Ndiaye had a game-high 13 rebounds - five on the offensive end - to go with six points.
Dixon was the player Vanderslice singled out to his teammates following the game. Dixon is one of the Pacers' key reserves, but Saturday he was pressed into action much earlier than usual after Jameel Rideout picked up two fouls in the first 84 seconds of the game.
Going to the bench that early could have been a disaster against Catawba's defensive pressure, but the 5-foot-11 junior guard made sure that wouldn't be the case. Dixon logged 24:35 of game time and committed just one turnover, grabbing four rebounds and dishing out two assists to go with his 10 points scored.
"(Dixon) just had to step up, and he really put himself in the position, and us in the position, where we really had to continue with that attack mindset," Vanderslice said. "That is more than anything, there was no attack mindset drop-off. Jameel comes out, (Dixon) comes in, and we were constantly trying to preach on attack mode. Attack mode, attack mode, attack mode. Because the second you play on your heels against a team that presses, advantage to them."
USCA couldn't afford to play timidly against Catawba's press, which the Indians use to rack up steals and easy buckets. Had the Pacers played on their heels, lobbing passes back and forth to try to just get it into the half-court, they would've given up layup after layup. They had to attack, and they did.
A Boyd 3-pointer with 10:48 left put USCA up by 10, the biggest lead by either team up to that point. Catawba senior Ray Kowalski answered with back-to-back 3s to cut it to four, only for Johnson to respond with a pair of triples of his own to push it back to 10 with 8:14 to play.
A Dixon layup increased the lead to 14 with 6:16 to go, and consecutive layups by McCoy and Horn iced the game by getting the lead back to 12 with just 2:07 remaining.
Five Catawba players scored in double figures, led by Jerome Bivins. The 6-9 junior forward came off the bench to score 16 points, hitting four of seven 3-point attempts and forcing Vanderslice to think twice about his substitution patterns to natch up with him.
The win sets up another meeting with rival Augusta, the host and top seed in the Southeast Region. USCA swept the regular-season meetings, including a 95-85 win Feb. 15 at Christenberry Fieldhouse, on the way to the Peach Belt Conference regular-season title. The potential for the rematch was hard to overlook when the bracket was released, but Vanderslice said his team has done a good job of not looking beyond the game in front of them.
"It didn't start just today. It's a habit they've created for themselves in the second half of conference," he explained. "We've had opportunities to look ahead, and we've continue to preach as a staff, as players, we've got to take it one game at a time. When we lost two games in a row, to Columbus in overtime and then to Lander at home, we weren't even thinking about winning the conference regular season. It was win the game right in front of us, and the rest will take care of itself."