AIKEN — Ronald Zimmerman returned to the gym late Saturday night – just before midnight – to work on his game.
The extra effort paid off in a big way.
Zimmerman scored a team-high 15 points and No. 20 USC Aiken pulled away late for a 69-57 win over No. 25 Wingate in the second round of the Division II Tournament on Sunday night at the convocation center.
The Pacers (24-7) will play host to Barton for the Southeast Regional championship – and a trip to the Elite Eight – at 7 p.m. Tuesday. USC Aiken is making its second Sweet 16 appearance in school history, first since 2009.
“It means a lot to be able to play and reach another goal if we win,” senior point guard Re’mon Nelson said. “But it’s also just another game for us. We came in wanting to win three games, one game at a time.”
The Pacers, the Peach Belt Conference regular season and tournament champions, avenged last season’s Division II Tournament first round loss to Wingate. USC Aiken shot just 43 percent from the field against the Bulldogs, but Zimmerman bounced back from a three-point effort in the Division II opener against Belmont Abbey on Saturday to lead the way. The junior guard shot 5 for 8 from the field with four 3-pointers.
“I was just trying to put up shots,” Zimmerman said about his late Saturday shootaround. “I was trying to get my confidence going. I just put up enough shots to where I felt comfortable.”
USC Aiken didn’t get in its comfort zone until midway through the second half. Paul Larsen, who posted 12 points and 10 rebounds despite playing in foul trouble, ignited a game-changing 11-0 run with his signature left-handed layup. After a Jesse Seilern free throw, Wingate’s Ryan Daye missed the front end of a 1-and-1.
Seilern then made a 3-pointer. Larsen followed with a putback.
Then, Seilern stole the ball from Ethan Kincaid at midcourt, went in for a fast-break layup, got fouled and drained the free throw.
All of a sudden, USC Aiken led 53-42 with eight minutes remaining.
“We thought we had more depth,” Pacers coach Vince Alexander said. “We thought we could wear them down. And that’s what I think we did.”
After getting off to a slow start, USC Aiken shot 56 percent from the field in the second half.
Santoine Butler finished with 11 points and three blocks, while Nelson added 10 points.
Wingate (22-9), the South Atlantic Conference Tournament champion, shot 38 percent from the floor, including a 3 for 13 effort from the perimeter.
Ryan Daye shot 6 for 14 from the field for 14 points to lead Wingate. Odell Turner added 13 points and seven boards.
“It was a lot like imagined,” Wingate coach Brian Good said. “I thought the key would be handling their pressure and making sure we got good shots. I thought we did a good job of that the first 20 minutes.”