USC Aiken Pacer men survive Peach Belt Conference opener against Columbus State
No. 7 USC AIKEN 69 COLUMBUS STATE 64
COLUMBUS, Ga. — Despite trailing in both halves and seeing its leading scorer on the season foul out, the No. 7 USC Aiken men's basketball team advanced in the Peach Belt Conference Tournament with a 69-64 win over host Columbus State.
The Pacers (27-3) rode an 11-1 run over a three-minute stretch late to overtake the Cougars (14-13) and match a program record for wins in a season.
“It just says that we're a blessed team,” head coach Vince Alexander said of the comeback. “I think we're battle tested. We've played a lot of road games; we've played a lot of close games.”
The host Cougars struck first but didn't do so until more than two minutes into the game. The Pacers led for the next several minutes, before Columbus State went on a 9-0 run to take a 20-13 lead with about seven minutes left in the first half.
“We came in, and we were expecting a few things that we didn't see,” Alexander said.
The Cougars stretched their lead to eight points with four minutes left in the half, largely on the contributions of Aiken Technical College transfer Kenney Funderburk. The 6-foot-4 junior scored 14 of his 21 points in the first half.
“I thought Kenney did a nice job,” Alexander said. “He's the reason why they were in the game. ... We did a really nice job on him late.”
For his part, Funderburk said his time in Aiken helped him “mature,” but he was quick to add that he had also grown since coming to Columbus.
“I think it really helped me a lot,” Funderburk said. “I think we really came together and left it all on the floor tonight.”
That effort might have resulted in a different outcome, if not for a shooting surge by the Pacers late in the first half. Trailing 24-16, the Pacers got a 3-pointer from leading scorer Ron Zimmerman, his first basket of the night more than 16 minutes into the game.
Jesse Seilern hit another deep ball after a two-point basket by Columbus State's Shane Heyward, who scored 17 points with nine rebounds on the night.
That coupled with missed chances at either end left the Cougars with a two-point lead and 8 seconds left in the half, but the Pacers had the ball. With two defenders in his face, Zimmerman buried another 3-pointer to send USCA to the locker room with a 27-26 lead.
“It was a very, very big shot, and that's what Ron does,” Alexander said.
Columbus State didn't fold despite what could've been a potential backbreaker, though, and the Cougars took the lead back on the very first possession of the second half.
Head coach Robert Moore was proud of the fight his team showed in a game he said was “not for any little boys,” with 46 total fouls and 54 combined points in the paint.
“I just want to commend my guys for coming out with a lot of toughness,” Moore said.
The teams traded buckets for a few minutes, and the Cougars seemed poised to pull away with about 8 minutes to go when Heyward put in a layup to give his team a 51-45 lead.
That's when DeVontae Wright went to work. With Zimmerman fighting foul trouble – he eventually fouled out with 2:40 left in the game – Wright scored 14 of his game-high 23 points in the final 6:15 of the game to push his team into the lead for good.
“DeVontae, being the leader he is, started seeing some things and doing some things,” Alexander said.
Wright, a first-team All-PBC selection in the regular season, credited Zimmerman's leadership, even though his fellow senior was on the bench in the game's waning moments.
“Ron himself, he was fouled out, but he never got down, and he told us to get past the mistakes,” Wright said.
Alexander counted that leadership, as well as his players' and coaches' efforts, among his blessings as a head coach. He said Zimmerman could've easily hung his head and taken a seat once he was disqualified, but the second-team All-PBC selection stayed involved.
“He's on the bench coaching,” Alexander said.
The Pacers were 14-for-16 from the free-throw line down the stretch to close out the win, and Wright was 11-for-12 on the night from the charity stripe. Paul Larsen had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, and Jesse Seilern finished the game with 10 points.
The Pacers will now turn their attention to Georgia Southwestern (20-9), the No. 2 seed out of the West Division. That semifinal game is set for today at 8 p.m.
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University. Follow him on Twitter @ASJTimm.