On a Senior Night when Re'mon Nelson was the only USC Aiken senior honored, it was a trio of juniors that sparked the Pacer men's basketball team to a 56-50 over Augusta State.
Nelson didn't have a bad night – he scored eight points to go with three assists, three steals and four rebounds – but Santoine Butler, Paul Larsen and Ronald Zimmerman all scored in double-digits to help clinch the Peach Belt Conference regular-season title for the second year in a row.
“It's fun; it's very fun,” Nelson said of facilitating the Pacer offense. “The first half of the game was very slow; they sat back in that zone the whole game, and we couldn't get into a rhythm. But after halftime we adjusted ... and it was fine. But it was very fun to watch.”
Butler and Larsen had 13 points each for USCA (19-6, 15-3 PBC), and Zimmerman added 11 in a win that sealed the Pacers' first regular-season sweep of Augusta State (13-12, 8-10) since the 1997-98 season.
Butler also had 11 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the year and blocked three shots.
Even though several players had good nights for the Pacers, head coach Vince Alexander wasn't completely satisfied with his offense.
“I had mixed emotions about our offense because I thought there were times that we weren't smart,” he said. “You know, we had some bad shots, some turnovers I didn't like, but overall, their game plan to try to stall it messes with us a little bit ... but we're good enough we can play both styles.”
The Pacers had 16 turnovers to Augusta State's 12 and hit on only 21.4 percent of their 3-point shots, well off their 41.5 percent mark on the year, good for second in the conference.
Even though the Augusta State defensive strategy worked to keep the Pacers from putting up a big final score, it didn't grant the Jaguars the opportunity to lead much. ASU made the game's first bucket on a layup by D'Angelo Boyce, but it didn't lead again after Larsen tied the game with a pair of free throws less than two minutes into the game.
From there, the Pacers stretched their lead to nine on two separate occasions in the first half before Augusta State closed the half on an 11-2 run to tie the game at 27 at the break.
The teams combined for 22 fouls in the first half, and the Jaguars' 12 first-half free-throw attempts – they connected on 15-of-23 from the charity stripe for the game – was something Alexander said kept the Pacers from holding a large lead.
“They were able to do that because ... we put them on the line too early in both halves, and that's not what we wanted to do,” he said. “We wanted to keep them off the line and limit those points from the free-throw line. ... We didn't want them to come in here and get 10 points from the free-throw line, so that messed things up a little bit.”
The Jaguars were able to trim down a 12-point deficit in the second half behind Boyce, Devonte Thomas and Ryan Weems, but the Pacers held on in the end, and an emphatic put-back dunk by Santoine Butler finished the clock and started the celebration.
Boyce led ASU with 13 points, followed by Thomas with 11 and Weems with 10.
Alexander said clinching the conference with a game to spare in the regular season allows his team to go into Saturday's 3:30 p.m. game at UNC Pembroke a little looser.
“It's huge; it takes a lot of pressure off our guys,” he said. “It's really nice, and it relieves a lot of pressure, so they can go into this last game and just play ball.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.