At a loss; USC Aiken's greatest season ever ends in Final Four
No. 7 WEST LIBERTY 86 No. 5 USC AIKEN 83
EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Repeatedly in Thursday's NCAA Division II Final Four matchup with No. 7 West Liberty, the No. 5 USC Aiken men's basketball team fought back from a deficit.
The final one proved too much, and the Pacers' season came to an end in an 86-83 defeat.
“The problem tonight was, I thought, we did not make shots,” said USCA head coach Vince Alexander.
The Pacers (33-4) were 30-for-74 (40.5 percent) from the floor, including just 3-for-13 from beyond the 3-point line against the Hilltoppers (31-3).
The trouble began early for the Pacers, as West Liberty stormed out to an 8-0 lead over the first three minutes of the game.
Shane Porchea hit a pair of free throws to put USCA on the board, and bouyed by DeVontae Wright, the Pacers turned that deficit into a 14-10 lead by the 11:18 mark.
“I just happened to be ... in the right groove,” said Wright, who led the team with 19 points, 15 in the first half.
Porchea also proved to be an asset for the Pacers. He scored eight points in the first half on the way to a 12-point night that also included six rebounds and four assists, a team-high.
Alexander said he was glad Porchea, a senior, was able to finish his career with such a solid night.
“It was tremendous,” Alexander said. “Shane did a great job; he came out and played both ends of the floor.”
The teams traded the lead eight times in the first half, with the Pacers pushing ahead by seven points with 9:09 left in the first stanza.
At that point, the trio of Cedric Harris, Devin Hoehn and Shawn Dyer shot the Hilltoppers back into contention, and a pair of free throws by Harris gave them the lead with 7:47 left in the half.
From there, the Pacers tried to stretch a lead out, but each time, West Liberty battled back, taking a 41-40 halftime lead on a Kelvin Goodwin jumper.
The Hilltoppers came back out in the second half and went to work, they led by as many as eight points over the next 10 minutes, but again, the Pacers came back.
Ronald Zimmerman hit a 3-pointer followed by a traditional three-point play by sophomore Grant Harris.
Wright eventually hit a pair of free throws to pull the Pacers within one, and then they took the 64-63 lead on a pair of Porchea free throws with 10:30 left.
“That's how these guys are,” Alexander said. “They're not quitters.”
The Pacers pushed ahead by as many as five over the next several minutes, but Dyer, Hoehn and Cedric Harris again had an answer. The Hilltoppers took the lead for good with 5:32 left on a pair of Hoehn free throws, but perhaps the final dagger came at the 1:57 mark.
USCA had trimmed the lead to a point at 79-78, but Dyer drove to the basket at the other end. He made the layup and was fouled, with the ensuing free throw pushing the lead to 82-78.
The possession was part of a 30-point night for Dyer.
“You could just tell he was scoring for the team,” said West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield.
Alexander said the team's foul situation – with Porchea, Jesse Seilern and Zimmerman all facing a foul-out – allowed Dyer to be more aggressive.
“We had foul trouble, so of course at the end of the game, he was attacking our guys,” Alexander said.
The situation got worse after Dyer's three-point play. Seilern fouled out with 54 seconds left, and Zimmerman followed him 40 seconds later.
The Pacers got a break when a Dyer free-throw miss with 14 seconds on the clock left the Hilltoppers with a three-point lead, but with Zimmerman and Seilern on the bench, the Pacers were without two solid options.
“It was bad,” Alexander said of having two of his best shooters and one of the best in the country in Zimmerman not available. “It was a bad situation for us.”
After Kinley Branch got trapped in the corner with 10 seconds left, he was able to send a pass to Wright who kicked to Derrick Scott, but Scott's 3-point attempt went awry.
The Hilltoppers will advance to Saturday's championship game against Central Missouri, 71-69 winners over Metro State on Thursday.
“It's great to be in uncharted waters, in the championship game,” Crutchfield said.
The Pacers, meanwhile, see their season end with the program's first Final Four run, but it was still not quite where the team wanted to end its year.
“I think it is just a blessing that we were able to do what we were able to accomplish, but we didn't reach our ultimate goal,” Porchea said.
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University. Follow him on Twitter @ASJTimm.