You know those classic sports movies. They have a happy conclusion to a feel-good story.
The ending isn’t written yet for the USC Aiken men’s basketball team, but it seems the Pacers have been in one of those movies for three seasons now.
On the eve of the program’s historic first Elite Eight game, it’s a good time to reflect on the feature film directed by USCA head coach and NABC Southeast District coach of the year, Vince Alexander.
For the last half decade, the Pacers have seen some amazing talent grace the hardwood floors of the Convocation Center. In fact, the likes of Chris Commons, Josh Dollard and Byron Faison would have led fans to believe the Pacers would’ve made the Elite Eight sooner. But that’s the most satisfying thing about the story of USCA’s run this season – it’s about more than talent.
It’s about redemption, it’s about great coaching, and perhaps most important, it’s about the growth of young men. To put it in full perspective you would need to relive the past two seasons.
Free throws were missed, the game was lost and ultimately tears flowed as the Pacers were sent packing last season in an upset in the first round of the 2012 Division II NCAA Tournament at the hands of Wingate.
Senior guard Sterling Council couldn’t bring himself to take off his jersey for the last time. He left the arena clad in full uniform and even wore it at the team’s last dinner in Alabama. It felt like it wasn’t the way the season was supposed to end for the Pacers. After a regular-season run that saw the Pacers go undefeated at home and set records, the feeling around campus was that the team would take care of business in the PBC Tournament and host the regional.
Instead the Pacers left the conference tournament with no PBC title, no Ron Zimmerman – he got injured in the first game of the tournament – and no plans to host the regional. Turns out that was part of the plot.
In every one of those cliché sports movies, the protagonist gets to correct all the mistakes made, as did the Pacers.
This season they didn’t lose their second-round, overtime game in the PBC Tournament. They didn’t let home-court advantage in the regional slip away. They earned the top seed thanks in part to Wingate’s win in the South Atlantic Conference Tournament.
Then they met up with Wingate again, this time knocking down their free throws to avoid the upset.
And, the best part of the regional, Zimmerman – this time not hobbled and confined to a walking boot – exploded in the championship game. He scored 24 points and led the Pacers to victory. Of course you can’t have a good movie without a hero who has overcome adversity. Zimmerman is no different.
The kids are all right
The most impressive part of the Pacers run has been the growth of the 2009 freshman class.
It wasn’t too long ago that the trio of Re’mon Nelson, Jesse Seilern and Zimmerman were a part of a USCA team that had all the pieces to be a Southeast regional champion like this year’s squad, sort of.
Flashback to the 2010 season, Seilern coming off a redshirt freshman year after an injury and Nelson and Zimmerman entering their second season were on a team with high expectations.
The Pacers were ranked in the preseason top-25 that year and reached as high as fourth in the national rankings before the season took a turn for the worse.
Zimmerman, however, never played for the squad. Instead he was relegated to draining 3s and leading his intramural team – comprised of other former pacers like Rashad Flowers – to a championship. Zimmerman said the time away from the squad after his freshman season was huge.
“It was definitely an eye-opener for me,” Zimmerman said. “I spent time really figuring out some things out for myself and getting my priorities in line.”
What Zimmerman missed that season was a group that finished the season by getting bounced in the first round of the PBC tournament, on their own floor, and missing the NCAA Tournament.
A more mature Zimmerman returned to the team last season and played a major role prior to his injury. Now he’s one of the best shooters in the nation.
Nelson and Seilern were each talented that year but still a shell of the stars they are now. They took the time to improve their game immensely. Nelson went from a sub-30 percent 3-point shooter that season to now one of the top five in the conference at 42.4 percent. Seilern has become a defensive stalwart.
Stories like Zimmerman’s and the rest of what could go down as Alexander’s best recruiting class ever are exactly what college sports are all about. A group of guys who, as Zimmerman stated, “have had (their) ups and downs but have come together”
While the final scene of the thriller that has been USCA basketball will be written over the course of the next few weeks, the final act already deserves a standing ovation. The team broke through the wall that was seemingly unconquerable in past years and earned a regional championship.
Alexander, Nelson, Zimmerman, Seilern and Paul Larsen have racked up numerous accolades for their roles in the run.
The Pacer fans have seen more talented USCA teams that left them wondering how the group came up short. As a member of the USCA community, it’s safe to say it simply wouldn’t have been as fitting had it happened to another group of guys.
Eric Russell has a communications degree from USC Aiken.