Re’mon Nelson, the senior point guard on the USC Aiken men’s basketball team, said Monday’s game against No. 15 Winston-Salem State was the chance for the Pacers to make a statement. They did, shooting at a tremendous clip that allowed them to take the lead for good a little more than 4 minutes into the game, a 98-84 victory.
“This is a very good Winston-Salem team, and we were focused on that No. 15 ranking,” said Nelson, who had a double-double with 12 points and 11 assists in 39 minutes of action for a USCA squad that’s already been hit by the injury bug. “This is a statement game for us, our offense never slowed down.”
It didn’t because of Nelson’s constant pushing of the tempo. Playing at home at the Convocation Center, the Pacers (2-0) also scored 49 points in each half thanks to a tremendous night shooting the ball. As a team, they connected on 30 of 49 field goal attempts (61 percent), including a school-record 73 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. Ronald Zimmerman led the way with a career-best 28 points, hitting 7 of 10 3-pointers.
“My teammates know my ability and it came down to execution. My teammates did a great job finding me and I was just doing my job,” said Zimmerman, who credited his coaches for pointing out soft spots in the Rams’ defense, that he and his teammates exploited. “We noticed lots of things on film, that we could drive the baseline and find the corners.”
When USCA found the holes, it capitalized at a tremendous rate. By making 14 of 19 shots from 3-point range, the Pacers broke the school record set in a 1992 game against Columbus State and broke the back of Winston-Salem (1-2). In addition to Zimmerman, Kinley Branch (16 points) was a perfect 4-for-4 while Jesse Seilern (19 points) was 2-for-3 and Santoine Butler (14 points and team highs with seven rebounds as well as four blocks) hit his only try from 3-point distance.
“This is a good shooting team and we try to take advantage of that, but it’s amazing how well we shot the ball,” head coach Vince Alexander said of his squad’s performance. “They did a great job of following the scouting report. … They can be pretty dangerous and we haven’t even reached our potential yet.”
Although it’s hard to imagine the Pacers playing better, Alexander is right. The tremendous shooting covered up for some mistakes and occasional sloppy play. Both USCA and Winston-Salem were whistled for 24 personal fouls – 30 coming after halftime – while the Pacers committed 17 turnovers. Those issues are to be expected at this early stage of the season, but one issue that could become a problem is a lack of depth in the frontcourt.
USCA’s playing without its two veteran big men. Maurice Hubbard, last year’s starting center has a torn Achilles’ Heel and is likely out for the season while Rick Alderman is nursing injuries to his back and knees and missed his second consecutive game. The Pacers were also without reserve guard DeVontae Wright because of issues with his back and wrist, which necessitated the ironman performance from Nelson. All three are productive rebounders and were missed against the Rams, who held a 33-28 edge on the boards. Sixteen of those rebounds were on the offensive glass, allowing Winston-Salem to get 21 second-chance points, which when combined with 33 points at the free-throw line allowed it to keep the game competitive in spite of USCA’s double-digit lead for much of the second half.
Four Rams scored in double figures, led by 13 points apiece from Wykevin Bazemore and Tyre Desmore. Stephon Platt added 11 more while Wakefield Ellison’s 12 points were part of the 42 Winston-Salem got from its reserves. Ellison also tied for team-high with six rebounds.
“We can do better rebounding, but it’s only our second game. We’ll get better,” said Alexander, who praised the performance of the big men he did have. “Paul (Larsen) and Santoine are doing a great job manning the inside. We’ve also got freshman Victor Bowden and can move Kinsley inside as well.”
In spite of any shortcomings, the Pacers showed they’re a dynamic offense which is capable of scoring in transition. They tallied 27 points off turnovers and used a persistent, if not always effective, defensive effort to keep the Rams from ever mounting a real threat. USCA also spent a lot of time at the charity stripe, converting 24 of 35 tries for a solid 68 percent, al though that was less than the percentage from 3-point range. Veteran guards Seilern (11-for-12), Nelson (6-for-11) and Zimmerman (3-for-5) led the way to the foul line.
The challenge now will be to replicate this effort against Winston-Salem when the teams play again on Nov. 28 in North Carolina.
“I expect them to be fired up and ticked off,” Alexander said of the Rams in the rematch that will complete a home-and-home series for his Pacers in their next game. “But I expect our team to be ready too.”
“We’re going to enjoy this for a few days,” Nelson said of the big win that’s followed by more than a week without a game. “But then it’s business time.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.