"It's all right," Ballard said. "We're not in first place alone like we should be if we had taken care of our business. But it's first place. We're used to being there."
Josh Dollard posted a double-double and the 15th-ranked Pacers pulled into a tie with Augusta State atop the Peach Belt Conference standings with a 91-72 win over UNC Pembroke at the convocation center.
This is how Peach Belt Conference coaches expected it when they filled out their preseason ballots. The coaches picked defending conference champion USC Aiken (18-5, 13-3) and Augusta State to finish one-two, respectively. Now, the rivals are fighting for the regular-season crown each with four games remaining.
Georgia College & State sits one game back in third.
"We have goals coming back in here to be conference champions, and that means a lot to us," Pacers coach Vince Alexander said. "So we've got to hang on to it. We just have to keep playing ball. We have to take care of USCA."
The win helped on the region front as well. USC Aiken likely will climb from third to second in the Southeast Region poll. A new ranking will come out Wednesday.
USC Aiken improved to 24-0 at the convocation center in regular season play. The Pacers are 11-0 at home this season.
Dollard posted his fifth double-double of the season with 17 points and 14 rebounds, along with four assists.
Chris Commons, the Peach Belt's second-leading scorer, posted 15 points, four rebounds and three blocks. With a broken middle finger on his shooting hand wrapped, Commons connected on 6 of 9 attempts from the field.
Ballard recorded 14 points for the Pacers, while Javonte Clanton added 12 points and seven assists. Kingsley Oguchi and Brandon Shephard each chipped in with 10 points.
USC Aiken defeated UNC Pembroke by 27 on the road Jan. 28. This time, the Braves deployed a zone defense that contained the Pacers for the first 25 minutes. After a sluggish start, USC Aiken shot 62 percent from the field in the second half. The Pacers scored 36 points in the paint and shot 25-for-34 from the foul line.
"We know teams are going to play us zone," Ballard said. "We were just patient, listening to our coach, feeding it in low, getting it inside. We couldn't throw it in the ocean tonight so we got the ball down low, got some fouls and got some easy layups."
The Pacers were up four with 14:32 remaining before pulling away. Ballard ignited a 9-0 run by converting a three-point play. Shephard followed with a 15-foot jumper. After a technical foul was called on UNC Pembroke's Cortez Brown, Clanton swished two free throws. Ballard completed the run, adding two foul shots.
USC Aiken led 56-43. The Pacers had the game well in hand and eventually expanded the lead to 21 points.
"We played good enough defense and we brought enough intensity," Dollard said, "to come out with the win."
For UNC Pembroke, the loss puts the team on the brink of elimination from making the Peach Belt Tournament. Only the top 10 of 11 teams qualify. The cellar-dwelling Braves (5-19, 2-15) trail Georgia Southwestern by three games with three remaining.
After shooting 57 percent from the field in the first half, UNC Pembroke shot 31 percent following intermission and finished at 41 percent. The Braves committed 16 turnovers, many of them unforced.
Demarcus Lyday scored 18 points to lead UNC Pembroke. Marcus Heath and Brandon Thomas added 15 apiece.