AIKEN — Sterling Council is a senior guard whose 25 minutes per game of playing time rank second on the USC Aiken men’s basketball team.
As a point guard, he distributes the ball freely, averaging nearly three assists per game, but still manages more than 11 points per game, good enough for second on the team in scoring. His 92.3 free-throw percentage leads the Peach Belt Conference and ranks second in NCAA Division II.
But when his Pacers take the floor for a key Peach Belt road matchup against archrival Augusta State on Wednesday night at Christenberry Fieldhouse, Council won’t be among those lining up for the opening jump ball. He’ll be where he usually is to start a game: on the bench with the other backups.
Technically, Council isn’t a starter, but coach Vince Alexander said that doesn’t mean he’s not a contributor.
“He’s a starter off the bench,” said a straight-faced Alexander.
“That’s what we do. That’s the way we’re going to play this year,” he said. “We’re going to bring four or five starters off the bench. We’re going to start five starters, and we’re going to take our chances down the stretch wearing teams out.”
Council said he embraces his nontraditional role, but as a competitor he admitted that it wasn’t easy to accept.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s tough being a senior and you have to come off the bench,” he said. “But I handle it. I think I’m doing all right. As long as we’re winning and reaching our goals, there’s nothing I can complain about at the end of the day.”
The Pacers are winning, and Council isn’t the only “starter off the bench” playing a key role in the success. Ten Pacers average at least 10 minutes of playing time a game. Council, guard Ron Zimmerman and forward Josh Gierbolini have combined to start just 10 times this season, but all three average at least 18 minutes per game.
The strategy’s success highlights the depth the 20th-ranked Pacers have enjoyed this season. They enter this week’s showdown as the top-ranked team in the Peach Belt with a 17-5 overall record and 11-3 mark in the conference, which puts them a game and a half ahead of Augusta State (14-9, 10-5) atop the East Division standings.
Council and his fellow seniors will go for their 80th career regular season win Wednesday. They’ve been to the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional twice, reaching the finals in 2009 and winning a conference tournament title the next year.
But the checklist of success has one empty box: an Alexander-coached USC Aiken team has never beaten Augusta State at Christenberry Fieldhouse.
Council, Alexander and the rest of the players think they have the team to break that streak. They’re coming off a close conference win over UNC Pembroke on Saturday in which the Pacers trailed by 15 in the first half, then climbed back to take the lead in the final minute.
Council was there to finish the rally. He played more minutes (30) than any other Pacer, scored 11 points and turned in a game-high six assists – none bigger than the pass to Jesse Seilern for a 3-pointer with 49 seconds left. “I like to start it and finish it, if I could,” Council said. “At the end of the day, I just do what I’ve got to do to put us in a position to win.”