No. 1 USC AIKEN 82, No. 3 BARTON 75

Ronald Zimmerman has done this before.

The junior guard on the USC Aiken men's basketball team has had games where he's taken control of the action by hitting large numbers of shots from beyond the 3-point arc. He led the Pacers in scoring this season because of his ability to connect from long distance. But he has never done it in these circumstances. No Pacer has. Ever.

USCA defeated Barton 82-75 Tuesday night at the Convocation Center to advance to the Elite Eight of the Division II NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. Playing in the regional title game for just the second time in program history, Zimmerman went 8-for-10 from outside to lead the Pacers (25-7) to the Southeast Regional championship.

“It was sweet for him,” USCA head coach Vince Alexander said of the win that was sweet for the entire team.

Zimmerman was named to the All-Regional team and scored a game-best 24 points, all on 3-pointers. None was bigger than his last triple, putting the Pacers ahead by six points with 10 seconds to play. That effectively put the game out of reach and clinched the milestone win for the program.

“It was a big shot,” Zimmerman said of the final 3-pointer. “I was surprised to get the ball because (point guard Re'mon Nelson) had it going to the hoop. My man was on me, but he wasn't on me close enough.”

Zimmerman's big performance came in game featuring a stellar matchup between Nelson and Barton star guard Gerald Boston.

Both of those players lived up to lofty expectations, scoring in double figures and being selected to the All-Regional team. But it was Zimmerman's shooting exhibition that kept the Bulldogs (23-8) at bay every time they tried to rally in the second half.

“I just try to do my job and hit shots,” said Zimmerman, who added three steals and three assists to his 24 points.

Nelson, who was named Regional MVP in the same season he's been named Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year and PBC Tournament MVP as well as an All-Region first-team selection, had 13 points, nine assists and three steals. Boston finished with 23 points and nine assists and led all players with 87 in the three-game regional. But he appeared to hurt his left hand in a spill and wasn't as dominant as he had been in wins over Montevallo and Lincoln Memorial.

He did get off to a good start, leading the Bulldogs to a 10-point lead in the first half. That just set the stage for USCA to rally as it did during its run to a PBC Tournament title.

“Their comeback in the first half was tremendous,” Barton head coach Ron Lievense said of the Pacers, who rallied from a 24-14 deficit with 9:31 remaining in the first half, outscoring the Bulldogs 25-13 before intermission. “We let them back in the game, but it's also a credit to their hustle and heart. In the second half they hit some big shots.”

Zimmerman was the leader with 15 points after halftime, but as has been the case for the Pacers throughout this season, it was a balanced team effort. Playing with a clearly aching hand, Santoine Butler had 16 points and a game-best nine rebounds. Paul Larsen battled foul trouble, as the officials called the game very close, but still managed 10 points and three rebounds.

Their effort wasn't lost on their coach, who said, “Santoine and Paul are two of the best post players in the country.”

Butler was elated after the victory.

“I can't explain the feeling. I get to be a part of a program with a winning tradition,” he said, although he's helped to add a new chapter to the success story.

Guards Jesse Seilern and DeVontae Wright combined for 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and eight fouls many of which they used while guarding Boston. They were part of a determined team effort to neutralize Barton's top gun, as both Nelson and Zimmerman contributed to the coverage and made Boston work for every thing. They hounded him up and down the floor, whether he had the ball or not.

“They have a lot of strong, athletic bodies to deny Gerald the ball. They kept constant pressure on Gerald,” Lievense said, adding the work the Pacers made his team do on defense was just as daunting. “They have tremendous guard play, tremendous post play and are very difficult to play. They don't have weaknesses.”

Boston wasn't surprised by USCA's strategy, nor would he concede the injury had any affect on his performance or the outcome.

“I knew their main focus was to get the ball out of my hands,” Boston said, taking the blame for the loss. “I should have done better for my team.”

It was clear that he struggled to use his left hand down the stretch and looked to facilitate more than score until the very end, when the Bulldogs tried to erase an 11-point deficit with 2:23 to play. He hit a difficult jumper just inside the 3-point line following a steal that cut USCA's lead to 78-75 with 40 seconds to play. But that was the last time he or Barton would score, setting the stage for Zimmerman's clutch shot with the shot clock about to expire.

“It was a rollercoaster, when we had an eight-point lead I was feeling pretty good,” Alexander said of the Pacers' 78-70 edge with about a minute to play. “But this team all year, it doesn't quit and keeps fighting.”

In addition to Boston, Barton forwards Jon Hart and Keith Manley had good games. Hart had 13 points and a team-high seven rebounds while Manley totaled 15 points and six boards. It wasn't enough as the Pacers' high-powered offense kept them in front all the way down the stretch with one player or another delivering whenever the Bulldogs challenged.

As time expired, players and the more than 2,000 fans in attendance celebrated. While Alexander was clear that USCA would move on to the next challenge today, he conceded Tuesday was a special night. It was a reflection of the team's ability to achieve goals.

“Individuals win awards, teams win championships,” Alexander said. “If (Re'mon) wins an award that us. If somebody is named All-Region, that's us. … The milestone we want is in Atlanta.”

That's where the D-II national championship game will be played. To get there, the Pacers must win two games at Freedom Hall in Louisville. The first contest will be against Midwest regional champion Drury University (28-4), and that game will be played at 8 p.m. on March 28. Should USCA win that contest, they'll play in the Final Four on March 30 at 2:30 p.m. A win there would mean the trip to Philips Arena.

While Nelson, a senior, played his last game at the Convocation Center Tuesday, it wasn't his last game. He told his teammates as much before tip-off.

“We're going to Louisville and are planning to win two games there,” Nelson said. “We hope to get back to Atlanta and have the opportunity to play in front of more fans.”

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.