The USC Aiken men’s basketball team is coming off one of its most gratifying wins in program history. Last Saturday, the Pacers solidified their position as the first-place team in the Peach Belt Conference East Division with a resounding 76-62 win over rival Augusta State. The road win ended a decade-long drought for USCA (14-5, 10-2) at Christenberry Fieldhouse on the other side of the Savannah River.
But the Pacers can’t spend too much time basking in the afterglow of the breakthrough victory, as they look to maintain a 2½-game lead on UNC Pembroke and Armstrong Atlantic State. They return to action at 7:30 tonight in Greenwood, where they will face last-place Lander. If USCA isn’t focused on taking care of the task at hand, it will feel like its gone from the penthouse to the outhouse.
Coming off a euphoric victory, it would be easy to look past the Bearcats – who have the worst record in the PBC against league competition at 1-10 – and focus on Saturday’s showdown at Armstrong Atlantic State. But the Pacers must be wary of losing focus. Although Lander has lost eight games in a row, it has been competitive in every game, with the largest margin of defeat just 10 points.
The Bearcats’ record is terrible (6-12 overall), but they’re a middle of the pack team statistically. They’re hitting more than 43 percent of their field goals on the season, good enough for a solid, but unspectacular, average of 71 points per game. Lander isn’t great defensively, but opponents are averaging 44.5 percent shooting, good for approximately 72 points per game, far from wretched numbers. The margins are slight, but they have gone against the Bearcats in critical moments of most games, as opponents have made big plays late to cause Lander misery.
That’s what happened in last Saturday’s 52-48 loss to Clayton State, when the Lakers emerged from a 46-all tie in the final minutes to win. Part of this can be blamed on inexperience as David Pruett, the team’s top scorer, is the only senior on the roster.
Darius Carrier scored a game-high 16 points for Lander in that loss and is one of several Bearcats capable of leading the team in scoring. He’s averaging a shade less than 10 points per game this season, trailing teammates Dermaine Smith (11.7 ppg on 64 percent shooting), Jareal Smith (15.9 ppg) and Pruett, who’s ninth overall in the PBC with an average of 16.3 points per game. The 6-foot-7 Dermaine Smith is a tough matchup and along with Carrier is averaging close to a double-double with both coming close to eight rebounds per game.
The challenge for USCA will be to start fast, build a solid lead and force Lander into a tough position that will allow the doubt that goes with eight consecutive losses to creep in. The Pacers are built to do this with a roster that’s well equipped to play fast and score often. They’re second in the PBC in scoring, averaging 84 points per game on 49 percent shooting.
Five USCA players are averaging more than 10 points per game, and two more are just behind that mark, with junior guard DeVontae Wright charging hard after returning to the lineup form a series of injuries earlier in the season.
When they’re in half-court sets, the Pacers are also comfortable dumping the ball inside to big men Paul Larsen and Santoine Butler to initiate offense. As long as they follow their own winning formula and don’t get caught in a trap game, they should be in excellent position for a sixth consecutive win and eighth in the past nine games.
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.
What: USC Aiken men’s basketball
Who: USCA (14-5, 10-2 PBC) at Lander (6-12, 1-10 PBC)
When: Today, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Horne Arena, Greenwood
USCA: Paul Larsen, Jr. F. Larsen has developed into a go-to guy for the Pacers in the low post and is averaging 11.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.
LANDER: Dermaine Smith, So. F. Smith leads the Bearcats with 7.8 rebounds per game and is third on the squad with 11.7 points per contest.