After USC Aiken dropped its regular season finale at UNC Pembroke, Pacers coach Vince Alexander quickly shook off the defeat.
“I came home and told my wife I thought it was a good loss, and I don’t like losing,” he said. “I thought it re-focused our guys going into the Peach Belt Tournament.”
After that rare slip-up, USC Aiken found its footing again. The Pacers (22-7), the regular season conference champions, reeled off three wins in three days to claim the tournament title Sunday. Now, USC Aiken is playing host to its first NCAA Division II Southeast Regional, facing Belmont Abbey at 5 p.m. today at the convocation center. The winner faces the Wingate-Limestone winner in Sunday’s region semifinals.
Senior guard Re’mon Nelson said his team enters postseason play as an underdog, a role the Pacers enjoy. USC Aiken was picked to finish fourth in the Peach Belt preseason coaches poll, and the team finally checked into the Division II rankings earlier this week at No. 20.
“There’s definitely something to prove around the region, around the league,” Nelson said. “We’re still not THE team. Being an underdog is kind of fun. You just come in there and fight.”
“We don’t care what anybody thinks about of us,” Alexander said. “We don’t care that we were picked fourth. We don’t care that we weren’t ranked. We don’t care. We’re fighters. We’re not going to quit. I’ve had teams more talented than this, but they weren’t fighters.”
Forward Santoine Butler points to USC Aiken’s early January loss at Columbus State as the season’s turning point. The Pacers blew a 14-point lead in the final eight minutes and lost in overtime. USC Aiken fell to 7-4 with the defeat, but the team bounced back to win 15 of its next 18 contests.
“We felt like we had that game in hand,” Butler said. “We never turned out back on each other as a team. It just made us stronger.”
Belmont Abbey (22-9) flexed its muscle in the Conference Carolinas Tournament after closing the regular season with three consecutive losses. The Crusaders reeled off three consecutive wins, including victories over the top two teams in the league in Barton in the semifinals and Limestone in the championship.
Belmont Abbey averages 87.4 points a game, but they also allow 81.5 points a contest. The Crusaders feature the nation’s leading scorer in senior guard Tyshawn Good, who’s averaging 27 points a game on 52 percent shooting from the field. Good has swished 63 3-pointers and is 233 of 277 from the free-throw line.
Belmont Abbey is the alma mater of Augusta State coach Dip Metress, USC Aiken’s chief rival. Metress also coached there for eight years.
“I know it’s his alma mater,” Alexander said. “I’m sure they’re probably getting as much from him as they can.”
USC Aiken averages 83 points a game on 48.1 percent field-goal shooting. Ronald Zimmerman leads the team with a 15.2 scoring average and is followed by Nelson (13.7), Paul Larsen (13.2 points, 9.0 rebounds) and Butler (12.4 points, 6.7 boards).