Four years ago today, USC Aiken held a memorial service for Javonte Clanton.
Tonight, the Pacers will try to win its first Southeast Regional championship with the former men’s basketball player on their minds.
No. 20 USC Aiken plays host to Barton at 7 p.m. at the convocation center, with a trip to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight on the line.
The Pacers (24-7), the Peach Belt Conference regular season and tournament champions, are making their second Sweet 16 appearance in school history.
USC Aiken played in its first regional final in 2009, losing at Augusta State. Hours after the contest, the 20-year-old Clanton decided to drive through the night back to his home near Columbus, Ohio.
According to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, the starting junior point guard fell asleep at the wheel and died in a single-car accident just north of Charleston, W.Va.
“He’s in my heart, especially when this time of year comes around,” USC Aiken coach Vince Alexander said. “I do my best to focus on what we have here and continue to encourage and motivate these guys. By the grace of God, we’re going to get over the hump. And I know he’ll celebrate with us.”
USC Aiken will look to cut down the nets on its home floor, where the Pacers are 15-1 this season. USC Aiken bounced Belmont Abbey in the Division II opener Saturday before pulling away from Wingate in the final 10 minutes Sunday. Now, the team is playing for a trip to Louisville, Ky.
“I feel like we’re a really talented team,” junior forward Paul Larsen said. “We can go far all together with this.”
Barton (23-7), the No. 3 seed in the regional, has bounced back after suffering an 18-point
loss to Belmont Abbey in the Conference Carolinas Tournament. The Bulldogs upended Montevallo in the regional opener Saturday before upsetting No. 13 Lincoln Memorial on Sunday.
“When you’re playing this time of year, it is so special,” said Barton coach Ron Livense, who guided his team to the 2007 Division II championship. “That’s what I tell our guys. They need to enjoy this. Ten years from now, they’re going to remember this. So I want them to enjoy every minute of it.”
Gerald Boston, the Conference Carolinas Player of the Year, leads Barton with a 22.0 scoring average, along with 4.9 assists per game. In the regional, the senior guard has scored 64 points, including an 18 for 19 effort from the foul line.
USC Aiken counters with point guard Re’mon Nelson, the Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year who averages 13.9 points and 6.1 assists a game. Ronald Zimmerman leads USC Aiken with a 14.8 scoring average and is followed by Larsen (13.2 points, 9.0 rebounds), Santoine Butler (12.2 points, 2.4 blocks) and Jesse Seilern (10.0 points).
“I know they’ve got a really good guard, but we’ve got a lot of good guards, too,” Alexander said. “I know they’ve got a kid who can score, but I think we’ve got some kids who can defend.
“I think they’re a very well-coached team. They do a good job. But I think we’re a good team too.”