Every game from here on out is USC Aiken interim coach Steve Franklin's final audition for the full-time position. His players gave him at least one more chance to impress.
The Pacers shot 49 percent from the field and rallied in the final minutes Wednesday night for an 80-72 win over South No. 4 seed North Florida in the first round of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament at Christenberry Fieldhouse.
"Since he does have that (interim) tag, we feel we need to come out and win for him," said Josh Poston, who scored a team-high 16 points. "Today, we were able to do that."
USC Aiken (6-20), 5-0 against North Florida in tournament play, snapped a 10-game losing streak and picked up its first win since Jan. 26. The Pacers defeated their first Peach Belt opponent this season other than UNC Pembroke.
The North No. 5 seed, USC Aiken advances to play North No. 1 seed USC Upstate (21-6) at 6 p.m. in Friday's quarterfinals.
"It's going to be a big challenge," Franklin said. "Our guys are going to have to come out and play hard."
The Pacers played harder than the Ospreys, at least from the rebounding standpoint. USC Aiken grabbed 15 offensive boards and out-rebounded North Florida 39 to 28.
"You have to give credit to the Pacers, because they outplayed us," North Florida coach Matt Kilcullen said. "It shows in offensive rebounding, because they finished with 15. Every time they needed a second chance, they got it."
USC Aiken also took advantage of its opportunities from the foul line. A 66 percent free-throw shooting team, the Pacers connected on 15 of 16 shots from the stripe in the final minute. The Ospreys (14-16) defeated USC Aiken, 82-75, during the regular season. But this time, the Pacers showed a more-patient offense willing to dish the ball around the perimeter to an open player.
USC Aiken led the majority of the second half and took a five-point cushion on Josh Geyer's three-point play with 5:26 remaining. But the Pacers let their guard down.
North Florida rattled off eight points and took a 62-59 lead on Riley Didion's two free throws. Another USC Aiken acid reflux moment waiting to happen?
This time, the Pacers saved themselves.
Arnold Coates scored on a putback. Poston converted two free throws. Then Geyer scored two of his 15 on a baseline jumper. USC Aiken led 65-62 with 1:06 remaining.
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.