USC Aiken men's basketball coach Vince Alexander isn't interested in talking about milestones … yet. But that doesn't mean they're not worth mentioning.
In a season full of significant records and events for the Pacers, they achieved the greatest to date on Tuesday night at the Convocation Center. That was when they defeated Barton 82-75 in the championship game of the Division II NCAA Tournament Southeast Regional to advance to the Elite Eight in the big dance for the first time in program history.
“The milestone we want is in Atlanta,” Alexander said of the national championship game, which will be played on April 7 at Philips Arena. “If we get that, we might go crazy. But we're going to enjoy tonight … tomorrow we're moving on, and God willing, we'll win a national championship.”
To make it to the title game in Atlanta, USCA must first advance through the Elite Eight and Final Four in Louisville, Ky. The Pacers' next game will be played at 8 p.m. on March 28, when it will take the floor at Freedom Hall against Midwest Regional champion Drury University.
The fact they're even at that point is significant, since it had never been achieved in all the years men have been playing D-II basketball at USCA. It didn't seem very likely at the start of this season, when the Pacers were picked to finish fourth in their own league – the Peach Belt Conference. They didn't even enter the national rankings until a week ago, when they were rated No. 20.
“We've been disrespected all year. No one believes in us but us,” Alexander said of his squad which exceeded expectations by winning the PBC regular-season championship, the conference tournament title and now the Southeast Regional which they hosted. “It means a lot. This team has worked its tail off all year.”
Led by regional MVP Re'mon Nelson, the Pacers rallied from a first-half deficit to build an 11-point lead with 2:23 to play in the game. Barton, which won the Conference Carolinas regular-season title, fought valiantly and cut its deficit to three points with 40 seconds to play.
But USCA staved off the comeback attempt and closed the game scoring the final four points, including a clutch 3-pointer from guard Ronald Zimmerman, who was named to the All-Regional team after scoring a game-best 24 points.
With an insurmountable lead, the vocal crowd of 2,008 supporters stood and cheered as their Pacers ran out the clock and started a celebration that included lots of hugging, trophy presentations and the traditional cutting down of the nets.
“I want to congratulate Aiken; that's a tremendous basketball team,” said Barton coach Ron Lievense, who applauded the effort put forth at the Convocation Center, on the court and behind the scenes. “Aiken did a tremendous job hosting the tournament and did great work.”
For the Pacers, that work isn't done as they'll look to add three more wins to their 25-7 season total. More importantly, they're looking to add another piece of hardware to their ever-expanding trophy case that included the nets from Tuesday's game.
“It's fun,” Nelson said of cutting down the nets. “It's a goal of ours, and we're looking forward to doing it again.”
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.