AIKEN — Before Re’mon Nelson’s final game on his home court, Vince Alexander sent up a prayer.
For four years, the USC Aiken coach and his senior point guard have dreamed together, practiced together and prayed together. And for one last time at the school’s convocation center, the two celebrated together.
Ronald Zimmerman scored 24 points, including the clinching 3-pointer with 10 seconds remaining, as USC Aiken defeated Barton, 82-75, for the Southeast Regional championship. The 20th-ranked Pacers will make their first Division II Elite Eight appearance next Thursday when they face Drury in in Louisville, Ky.
“All I kept thinking about today was, please God don’t let Re’mon go out of here with a loss on this court. I don’t want him to remember that,” Alexander said. “Glory to God, it didn’t happen. Now, I pray that He doesn’t let him lose any more games.”
USC Aiken (25-7) has come a long way since being picked to finish fourth in the league in a preseason Peach Belt Conference coaches poll. The Pacers went on to win the regular season and tournament titles and now have added a first regional championship.
“We’ve been disrespected all year. No one’s believed in us except us,” Alexander said. “We’ll celebrate tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll find out who we play.
“We’re not going to have any easy practices. We’re going to work hard. We’re going to get better. And God-willing, we’re going to win a national championship.”
With 13 points, Nelson, the Southeast Regional Tournament Most Outstanding Player, climbed into second place on USC Aiken’s career scoring list. Nelson passed Chris Commons (1,229 points) and now has 1,235.
Nelson and his teammates struggled early against Barton (23-8). USC Aiken opened the game missing seven of its first nine shots and fell down 24-14.
“Everybody’s out there overly aggressive, overhyped,” Nelson said. “After we settled down, it was Pacer basketball.”
USC Aiken reeled off a 14-2 run, keyed by two Zimmerman 3-pointers – he shot 8 for 10 from the perimeter – and another from Kinley Branch, to surge ahead, 28-26. The teams traded the lead six times in the first half, with the Pacers getting in the final blow. Zimmerman popped a 3-pointer from the right corner just before the half expired, giving USC Aiken a 39-37 lead.
The Pacers opened up a close game with a 13-4 run midway through the second half. Zimmerman swished a 3-pointer to cap the spurt and extend USC Aiken’s lead to 70-61.
After another Zimmerman 3-pointer with 2:23 to go, the Pacers seemed to be in control at 78-67. But Chris Flemmings responded with a three. Then, Barton’s Keith Manley added another. After a steal by Aaron Brown, Gerald Boston, who scored 23 points and played the final 25 minutes with an injured left hand, dropped an 18-foot jumper. The Bulldogs pulled within 78-75 with 40 seconds remaining.
But Zimmerman iced the game with a three from the left win with 10 seconds left, sending the Pacers into jubilation.
“It’s been this team all year that they don’t quit,” Alexander said. “They keep fighting. They come together. We’re a very blessed team.”