AIKEN — Against its rival’s retro style of play, USC Aiken made all the right adjustments Wednesday night.
Forwards Santoine Butler and Paul Larsen combined for 26 points and the Pacers clinched their second consecutive Peach Belt Conference regular-season title with a 56-50 win over Augusta State at the convocation center.
“We’re blessed by God to be able to come out and win this conference back to back,” USC Aiken coach Vince Alexander said. “It’s a great team. They believe in one another, they believe in us and we believe in them.”
The Pacers (19-6, 15-3) fell behind Lincoln Memorial to No. 2 in the Southeast Region poll, released earlier in the day. But if USC Aiken wins its regular-season finale Saturday at UNC Pembroke and then wins at least two games in the Peach Belt Tournament, it likely will play host to the regional for the first time.
USC Aiken is in good position in the regional thanks to its first sweep of Augusta State since the 1997-98 season. Against the Jaguars, USC Aiken shot 53 percent in the second half, snapping a 27-all tie at intermission with a 15-3 run.
“The first half of the game was very slow,” senior guard Re’mon Nelson said. “They sat back in that zone and we couldn’t get in a rhythm. At halftime, we made some adjustments and it was fine.”
Short-handed Augusta State switched to a slow-down offense two weeks ago, holding the ball as much as possible. After missing three layups in the first five minutes, the Jaguars shot 47 percent in the first half and rallied to tie the game.
D’Angelo Boyce scored 13 points to lead the Jaguars. Augusta State scored just three points on a Devon Wright-Nelson 3-pointer the first 13 minutes after halftime, falling into a huge hole. A DeVontae Wright layup staked USC Aiken to a 42-30 lead with 7:42 remaining.
“We came out and made the adjustments we needed to make, not putting them on the free-throw line and not giving them easy baskets,” Alexander said. “We contained them.”
“In the first half, the only reason they scored was because they were on the free-throw line. We fouled, fouled, fouled,” Nelson said. “Our main thing at halftime was no more fouls and just tighten up on defense.”
The Jaguars shot 39 percent from the field and shot just 15 of 23 from the foul line (65 percent). Augusta State scored its fewest points in a game all season.
“Our margin of error was small,” Jaguars coach Dip Metress said. “They’ve got a team that if they don’t win a regional championship, they’ll be upset. In order to beat a team of that caliber, you’ve got to cut down on possessions, cut down on shot attempts.”
Augusta State rallied late and trailed by four when Roman Hill drove the lane with 2:36 remaining. Instead of going in for a layup, he made a late-minute decision to try to dish the ball out to the corner. Nelson stole the pass and USC Aiken held on for the victory.
The Pacers dominated the Jaguars inside the paint, winning the rebounding battle, 34-21. USC Aiken also scored 34 points in the paint. Butler finished with 13 points, 11 boards and three blocks, while Larsen added 13 points and eight rebounds.