USC Aiken Pacers repeat feat and return to Elite Eight
The USC Aiken men's basketball team is going back to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season. With an 84-73 win over Montevallo, the Pacers punched their ticket to the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., site of the final three rounds of the Division II NCAA Tournament.
Like they did a year ago, the Pacers, ranked fifth in the nation, celebrated winning the Southeast Regional on their home court at the Convocation Center. Getting to share the unique moment with the crowd of approximately 2,400 fans made the achievement even sweeter for the Pacers.
“We're here again and we're blessed again,” USCA head coach Vince Alexander said of his veteran team, which features 10 seniors. “This is their last game here, in front of our crowd. It's the greatest crowd in the country. The goal is, God willing, to go up there and win a national championship and bring it back to Aiken.”
The Pacers, who have a 32-3 record on the season and are currently on a 14-game winning streak, made it to the Elite Eight last year for the first time in program history. Their trip to Louisville, Ky., was short lived. USCA lost in the national quarterfinals to Drury, the eventual national champion.
So when the team convened last August, to start the slow process of the 2013-14 season, it set a list of goals. Repeating as regional champions was high on the list, allowing the Pacers another trip to the Elite Eight and a second chance at a national championship.
Like so many of their other goals they set for this season, including winning the Peach Belt Conference's regular-season and postseason tournament titles, the Pacers have been successful. They got to cut down the nets on their home floor for the second straight year as a result.
“We like cutting down nets, but we're not satisfied,” said senior point guard DeVontae Wright, who had 11 points, six assists and five rebounds and was named MVP of the Southeast Regional. “I'm ready to go to Evansville right now.”
Wright and his teammates will have to wait until next week to travel to the Midwest. They'll even get a few days off from practice, something that has been the key to their success over the past two seasons. Alexander said he and his coaching staff ramped up the intensity of the team's practices, including one a few hours prior to Monday's win over Montevallo.
“The way we practice, it used to be very light,” Alexander said of one of two primary secrets to his team's incredible back-to-back runs to the Elite Eight. “The other is the leadership among these guys.”
Of the 11 players on USCA's active roster, eight played last year. Two others have been with the program for a number of years and returned this season, overcoming injuries and academic issues. The experience helped them win the regional, jumping out to a 17-point lead in the first half and staving off the Falcons' frantic attempts to rally down the stretch.
The experience might have also led to a slightly more subdued celebration than the outpouring of emotions from a year ago. Make no mistake, it was a moment to revel in and relish for the players, coaches, the supports staff and their families, as well as the fans. But there was a sense that this is a team with unfinished business.
“It's not just all fun and glory and cutting down nets,” said fifth-year senior Jesse Seilern, who scored a team-best 17 points and was the primary defender on Montevallo's star guard Troran Brown. “It's work and frustration and endurance. It's the energy we put into this behind closed doors with nobody watching. We don't play to cut down nets. We play to be perfect.”
That approach could help them in their quest in Evansville.
“Last year, we didn't know what to expect and got hit right away,” Alexander said. “We were the new kids on the block. Now, we're not the new kids on the block. ... We're playing really good basketball. This is an experienced group that knows what to do.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.