The USC Aiken men’s basketball team will return to action tonight following a nine-day layoff. The Pacers (3-2) won’t have any time to shake off any rust or find their groove because of time off for exams. That’s because they will face a stout opponent in UNC Pembroke (6-3) in the Peach Belt Conference opener for both teams.


The good news for USCA is that the game will be played at the Convocation Center – tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. – where all three of its wins have come this season. In fact, the Pacers haven’t lost on the home hardwood since the 2010-11 season, an 18-game winning streak that’s a program record. But the Braves have recorded two wins in Aiken in recent years.


USCA beat Mount Olive 96-82 at the Convocation Center in its last game on Dec. 6. That victory snapped a two-game skid for the Pacers, who lost on the road against Winston-Salem State and Benedict. The key to the win over Mount Olive, a game that was marred by 56 personal fouls between the teams, was similar to the Pacers’ path to success in their other wins – good shooting from 3-point range.


USCA connected on 11 of 21 3-point attempts (52 percent) against Mount Olive. Junior guard Ronald Zimmerman led the barrage, hitting seven of his 12 tries for a career-best 34 points.


The seven 3-pointers matched a career-high for Zimmerman – the PBC Player of the Week – from a win earlier in the season when he and his teammates combined to connect on 71 percent of their long-range shots. On the season, Zimmerman is hitting 51 percent of his shots from outside the arc and he leads the nation with 5.0 3-pointers made per game, while averaging a team high 20 points per game.


“Ron can shoot it,” said USCA head coach Vince Alexander, who is one win away from tying Larry Epperley for most wins in program history with 129. “Opponents better guard him close, especially at home. He’s a really good shooter.”


Zimmerman has needed to shoulder a greater offensive load this season with several key players missing time because of injury, or foul trouble which was the case against Mount Olive. Senior point guard Re’mon Nelson fouled out of that contest with more than 9 minutes to play, but is still averaging 11 points and seven assists per game. He and Zimmerman are two of six Pacers posting double-digit scoring averages along with Kinley Branch (11.8), Jesse Seilern (11.4), Santoine Butler (10.6) and Paul Larsen (10.4).


They’ll need to be as productive as possible while reducing their average of 18 turnovers a game to knock off UNCP, which comes into tonight’s contest having won five games in a row. The Braves are averaging better than 97 points per game during their winning streak, which most recently included a come-from-behind overtime win over Mount Olive.


In that game, they overcame a 10-point deficit in the final six minutes to prevail 96-89. It was just the latest example of how good UNCP is when playing at a very high level. In the winning streak, the Braves are scoring so well because they’re hitting nearly 50 percent of their field goal attempts. That number is magnified by a strong defense that’s limiting opponents to 37 percent over the same stretch. The Braves are also limiting opponents by winning the battle of the boards on a consistent basis. This could be significant for a fairly undersized USCA squad that hasn’t established great depth in the front court.


Through nine games, three Braves have posted double-digit scoring averages. They’re led by preseason all-PBC selection Shahmel Brackett, who’s averaging 16.3 points, 4.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game while shooting 45 percent from the field and a PBC-best 52.9 percent from the perimeter. Redshirt freshman Quamain Rose has averages of 14.1 points, 3.1 assists and 3.0 steals an outing, while senior big man George Blakeney averages 11.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Four other Braves are averaging 7.3 points per game or better.


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.


Today’s Game


What: USC Aiken men’s basketball


Who: USCA (3-2) at UNC Pembroke (6-3)


When: Today, 7:30 p.m.


Where: USCA Convocation Center


STAR WATCH


USCA: Ronald Zimmerman, Jr., G. Zimmerman is among the very best 3-point shooter’s in the nation, shooting 51 percent from beyond the arc.


UNCP: Shahmel Brackett, Sr. G. Brackett was a preseason all PBC selection and is averaging 16.3 points, 4.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game.