No. 7 DRURY 84, No. 20 USC AIKEN 75
By NOAH FEIT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the end, Drury was just too tough for the USC Aiken men’s basketball team to beat. In spite of their best efforts, the Pacers were fighting an uphill battle too much of the game against a very talented opponent and couldn’t muster one last rally.
No. 20 USCA’s season ended in the Elite Eight of the Division II NCAA Tournament, falling 84-75.
“You’ve got to give credit to Drury, they did a great job,” head coach Vince Alexander said after guiding the Pacers (25-8) deeper into the postseason than ever before in program history. “We got off to a rough start.”
That was definitely the case, as the Pacers, playing on the grand stage at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky. were shaky at the outset and quickly fell behind 7-0. That deficit grew to 13 points as USCA couldn’t find a rhythm on offense and didn’t connect on a field goal attempt until more than seven minutes had run off the clock.
Rather than wilt under the pressure of the situation against the No. 7 team in the nation, the Pacers did what they have done all season and fought.
“We had to stay calm,” Alexander said. “It was a big moment for the guys, and I tried to be poised and patient so I could lead the team in the right direction. But it was a tough stretch for us.”
What exacerbated the situation for USCA was the foul trouble point guard and senior leader Re’mon Nelson was in. The Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year, PBC Tournament MVP and Southeast Regional Most Outstanding Player saw his minutes drastically limited by three first-half fouls.
“It’s very tough to play without him on the floor,” a hoarse Alexander said of Nelson.
“Basketball is the only sport where you have to go out of the game because of fouls,” Drury (29-4) head coach Steve Hesser said of Nelson’s plight. “He can take over a game, a difficult cover. He not only makes buckets, he makes it easier on his teammates.”
Without Nelson much of the first half, USCA rallied with solid defense and a boost off the bench. They battled back and when Ronald Zimmerman hit a 3-pointer with 11 seconds to play, that sent USCA into the locker room trailing 42-36.
That wasn’t too bad considering Nelson’s absence, lack of an effective low-post offense – an area the Pacers thought that had a distinct advantage – and most significantly, having to deal with Drury All-American Alex Hall.
Hall scored 18 of his game-high 33 points in the first half, stretching the USCA defense with five made 3-pointers and opening lanes to exploit with passes and drives in the second half.
“I’m sitting up here right now because of (Hall and fellow senior guard Brandon Lockhart) and their commitment,” Hesser said. “It’s about players stepping up and making plays; that’s March Madness. These players make me a lot smarter as a coach.”
Lockhart finished with 15 points and seven assists. He helped set up forwards Teddy Simniok (14 points) and Cameron Adams, who scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half when the Panthers staved off a Pacer rally and pulled away in the closing minutes.
The Drury duo outscored the Pacers talented pair of low post players, Paul Larsen and Santoine Butler.
Larsen was limited to seven points but did corral a game-high 15 rebounds. Butler saw his minutes limited in the first half because of fouls and only finished with six points and four boards.
“Give credit to Drury, they were dropping down on Paul and taking things away from him,” Alexander said. “He was going too low in the post and we tried to adjust and get him a little higher. They made him not a factor.”
A player who provided solid minutes in relief of Larsen and Butler was Derrick Scott, He’s not in the regular rotation, but played critical minutes and scored nine points. DeVontae Wright did his best to pick up the slack for Nelson and played a team-high 36 minutes. Wright finished with 10 points, five rebounds and five assists off the bench.
But the player who provided the Pacers with their biggest boost was Ronald Zimmerman. The starting guard made the important 3-pointer just before the half and started the second stanza like a house on fire. In a three-minute span coming out of halftime, Zimmerman hit four 3-pointers to turn USCA’s six-point deficit into a 50-46 advantage. Zimmerman finished the game with 20 points, making 6 of 11 tries from long distance.
“I was trying to get some momentum going our way,” said Zimmerman, who added the can’t miss stretch isn’t unusual for the player with the most made 3-pointers in the nation. “I like to think that way all of the time.”
Drury made sure to adjust to Zimmerman, making him and his teammates labor for any shot. On a number of possessions, the Pacers had to launch a shot to beat the shot clock. That improved defense along with the constant pressure of Hall was too much to overcome as the Panthers outscored the Pacers 38-25 in the final 15 minutes. Drury will face Western Washington on Saturday in the Final Four.
They did that in spite of another tremendous effort by Nelson, who never let the Panthers feel comfortable until the final buzzer sounded. He hit a number of big shots and finished his last game with 16 points and 10 assists.
“We did everything we wanted to do except win and go to Atlanta,” Nelson said, reflecting on the tremendous season, the most successful in USCA history. “As a team, I just tried to lead and it was great to play in a great venue. … I’m going to cherish this moment.”
The bad news is Nelson’s career with USCA is over, falling just short of the ultimate goal of winning a national championship. The good news for Alexander and the Pacer faithful is that the rest of the roster is expected to return next season. That should make the Pacers a favorite to duplicate this success.
“It’s been incredible and it’s so great to do it with (Nelson),” Alexander said. “What we’ve accomplished is great. We’ve never been here and I’m very proud. But I want to go further. I want to never be satisfied and go further next year.”
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.