USC AIKEN 96, MOUNT OLIVE 82

By NOAH FEIT


nfeit@aikenstandard.com


It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always pretty, but it was a win. And that was what was most important for the USC Aiken men’s basketball team Thursday.


The Pacers returned to the Convocation Center after losing back-to-back games on the road and used a strong finish to defeat Mount Olive, 96-82. They outscored the Trojans 25-10 in the game’s final 6½ minutes, helping the Pacers (3-2) to overcome a night when they were plagued by foul trouble and turnovers.


“We won, and that’s what’s important,” said Vince Alexander, who notched his 128th victory as USCA head coach, one shy of Larry Epperley’s program record. “There were a lot of fouls, and we turned the ball over too much, but the guys showed great character down the stretch. They gave tremendous effort.”


Ronald Zimmerman was a catalyst for the Pacers all night, but especially in the closing moments. He scored 10 of his team’s final 25 points, providing offense when they needed it the most.


“I try to look at myself as a leader, and I have great teammates to support me. I tried to step up,” said Zimmerman, who led all scorers with a career-best 34 points on 10-for-15 shooting from the field and 7-of-8 at the free-throw line. “I don’t like to think on stats too much. I just want to do my job and play hard.”


Zimmerman, who came into the game second in NCAA Division II in 3-pointers made, connected on 7 of 12 shots from long distance. His 3-pointer with 6:28 put the Pacers ahead for good.


“Ron can shoot it, so they better guard him close, especially at home,” said Alexander, who noted that Zimmerman’s sharp shooting creates more offense for his team. “He’s a really good shooter, and we try a lot of things to get him the ball, and that get the big guys opportunities inside as well.”


That was the case against Mount Olive (1-5). Interior players Santoine Butler (14 points, five rebounds, five blocks), Paul Larsen (10 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, two steals) and even the versatile Kinley Branch (10 points, nine rebounds, three assists, two blocks) all scored in double figures. Many of their baskets were the result of good ball movement as Trojan defenders tried to overplay Zimmerman.


As a team, the Pacers connected on 54 percent (27-for-50) of their shots from the field, compared to 41 percent (25-for-60) for the Trojans.


But there were some significant issues for the Pacers – namely the fouls and turnovers.


Although Mount Olive had four players score in double figures – led by Darrell Patterson’s 22 – the biggest issue was the Pacers’ self-inflicted wounds. USCA committed 25 turnovers, leading to 24 points for Mount Olive. The Pacers were also whistled for 28 fouls, leading to 37 Trojan free-throw attempts. The foul situation became a real issue when Re’mon Nelson fouled out with 7:41 to play. The senior point guard, who had 15 points, seven assists and five rebounds, is a player Alexander has leaned on heavily this season – especially with reserve guard DeVontae Wright currently out with injuries.


Larsen fouled out with 4:30 to play, and by that point Nelson had been replaced on the floor by Jesse Seilern, who had four fouls of his own. But Alexander wasn’t worried about the possibilities.


“I wasn’t concerned because we have a good freshman who came in and did a good job,” Alexander said of Grant Harris, who had two points, two steals and six assists to just one turnover in 17 minutes of action. “He was composed. And I didn’t want to look concerned, and I didn’t wan them to get rattled.”


With Harris, Seilern and Zimmerman doing most of the ball handling, the Pacers were the more composed team down the stretch. Mount Olive missed 10 shots in the final 6 minutes, as well as committing three turnovers and six fouls. Overall, the Trojans’ issues with fouls (28) and turnovers (21) allowed the Pacers to stay in control in spite of any shortcomings.


“We fouled too much, both teams did,” said a diplomatic Alexander, who didn’t want to say anything inflammatory about the officials who altered the way the game was played because of their numerous calls. “We’ve got to get better if that’s the way they’re going to call the games.”


Now that the Pacers have snapped their skid and moved their record back above .500, they’ll try to gain momentum when they return to action Dec. 15 against UNC Pembroke. That game, which will be played at the Convocation Center, is USCA’s Peach Belt opener this season.


“We have to build off this,” Alexander said. “That’s a big game, and we’ve got to be ready to go.”


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.