LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It had to end some time.
The USC Aiken men's basketball team advanced so far in the Division II NCAA Tournament, the end of the season was closing in on it. But it came a little too soon for the Pacers and their fans.
The greatest season in USCA men's basketball history ended in the Elite Eight following a 84-75 loss to Drury.
Thursday's game, played at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky., was a back-and-forth affair that saw the No. 20 Pacers (25-8) rally from an early double-digit deficit to take a lead shortly after the start of the second half. But the seventh-ranked Panthers (29-4) were too tough down the stretch, displaying too much firepower on offense and making enough big stops on defense to advance to the Final Four, where they'll play Western Washington University.
Even though the lead was insurmountable, USCA never quit until the final seconds had ticked off the clock as senior point guard and team leader Re'mon Nelson made the last moments of his college career count. Hounded by foul trouble, Nelson made big shots down the stretch to keep Drury from running away. He finished with 16 points and 10 assists in 27 minutes of action, playing the end of the game with four fouls.
But not even a career-ending loss could dampen Nelson's spirits. In a season of milestones, awards and personal recognition, Nelson was focused on the team's success.
“I'm very grateful for being here,” Nelson said of USCA's first-ever trip to the Elite Eight. “I'm a senior, this is my last game, but I've got no regrets. I did everything I wanted to.”
Nelson was named Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year, MVP of the PBC Tournament and Most Outstanding Player in the Southeast Regional to go along with several all-region selections. He finishes his career as the Pacers' all-time leader in assists and steals and is second on the points scored list. But most significantly, he was the driving force behind a team that finally got over the hump and advanced beyond the Southeast Regional after so many near misses and close calls in the past decade.
USCA head coach Vince Alexander was hoarse after trying to implore his team to a victory. But he was also proud of everything the Pacers have accomplished.
“I'm blessed to coach this team,” said Alexander, who with 150 wins as USCA's head coach is the program's all-time leader. “I've been blessed all year. It doesn't stop with a loss.”
While the season didn't end with one more title, that doesn't diminish how special it was for the Pacers, their fans and followers. They've set the bar higher than ever before and will be the team that all future success is measured against.
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.