AIKEN — One drill during a typical USC Aiken men’s basketball practice includes playing down by 10 points with two minutes left.
The drill became a reality Wednesday night when the Pacers found themselves down 10 to an upset-minded Francis Marion team late in regulation. Unlike what often happens in practice, USC Aiken pulled off a frenzied comeback, forced extra basketball and beat the Patriots 105-98 in double overtime.
“I was praying,” Pacers coach Vince Alexander said. “We practice that a lot. We practice being 10 down with two minutes to go, and a lot of times we don’t win those games in practice.”
Playing on senior night with a chance to wrap up his final year undefeated on his home court, Sterling Council scored a game-high 33 points – none bigger than his four-point play to cut the deficit to six points with 2:24 left in regulation. The usual bench player, who got a rare start, later hit an off-balance 3 after an awkward pump fake to cut the deficit to four points.
Fellow starting guard Re’mon Nelson, playing on a badly sprained ankle, scored the last four points of regulation to force overtime. Together the two guards had 54 points on 17 of 35 shooting.
The effort allowed the highly favored Pacers (19-6, 13-4 Peach Belt Conference) to avoid blowing their first game since receiving a No. 2 ranking in Wednesday’s NCAA Division II Southeast Regional poll. On the same night rival and East Division second-place Augusta State lost at Lander, first-place USC Aiken avoided a similar fate, but just barely.
“Heart. That’s it. Heart. We never give up,” Council said. “We were saying, ‘fight’ when we were down by 10. At the end of the game it’s heart. We kept fighting and staying together as a team.”
At the end of the game Joel Gierbolini sank to the floor in exhaustion and mustered just enough energy to kiss the Pacers logo at center court. On a night when starting forward Jeremiah Pojah failed to score in 25 minutes of playing time and Rick Alderman, the other starter at the post, fouled out, Gierbolini’s role increased as the game extended.
The junior forward scored eight points, grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds and blocked four shots. After a rare free throw miss from Nelson, Gierbolini’s key offensive rebound and dish to Chase Holmes allowed the Pacers to force a second overtime.
Holmes finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds and Alderman added 17 points before fouling out.
The team collectively hit 75 percent (27 of 36) from the free throw line, including 8 of 10 in double overtime.
“It was certainly a blessing to see them get through and overcome,” Alexander said. “I’m filled with joy and gratefulness to God for blessing me with such great players. I’ve enjoyed coaching this group better than any team I’ve ever had here.”
The Pacers (19-6, 13-4) went undefeated at home for the first time since the 2007-08 season and will wrap up the regular season Saturday at Flagler.