In a game for the ages, the No. 5 University of South Carolina Aiken men's basketball team came up just short in the 86-83 loss to West Liberty in the national semifinal Thursday evening.
The Pacers conclude the season with a 33-4 record.
Paul Larsen's lay-up at the 5:01 mark gave head coach Vince Alexander's team the 76-75 lead. However, it marked the last time the squad would have the advantage in the game.
Just 4:05 later, USC Aiken found itself down by six, but Rick Alderman's lay-up pulled the squad within four with 44 ticks on the clock. After a free throw by the Hilltoppers, Ronald Zimmerman buried a three off a pass from Shane Porchea with 25 seconds remaining, making it an 85-83 game.
West Liberty made one-of-two free throws after Zimmerman was called for the foul with 14 seconds remaining for a three-point edge. The Pacers had a chance to tie it on a Derrick Scott three from the corner with one second left, but it came up just short in the outstanding contest.
USC Aiken found itself in an 8-0 hole right out of the gate, but the senior-laden team methodically worked its way back into the game, tying the contest at 10 on DeVontae Wright's jumper at the 12:52 mark. The Pacers continued on the 14-2 run as Porchea and Zimmerman canned back-to-back shots.
Alexander's team stretched its lead to seven on a three-ball by Zimmerman at the 9:09 mark for a 19-12 advantage. However, the Hilltoppers came back, tying it at 21. Neither team could gain much of an edge the rest of the half, but a lay-up with 43 seconds remaining gave West Liberty a 41-40 lead at the break.
The Hilltoppers built a six-point lead at the 17:19 mark of the second half, but the Pacers never let it hit double digits. Although USC Aiken trailed by eight at the 12:45 mark, a three-pointer by Zimmerman and a coast-to-coast drive by Grant Harris trimmed it to two after Harris netted the old-fashioned three-point play.
The Pacers eventually took a 64-63 lead after it embarked on a 6-0 spurt. During the run, Paul Larsen made an inside shot and Wright buried two free throws. The Pacers took the lead when Porchea hit both charity tosses at the 10:30 mark. The squad completed the 8-0 spurt when Larsen netted another lay-up for a 66-63 lead.
After the designated home team pulled within one at 68-67, Jesse Seilern netted four straight points for a 72-67 margin.
Leading the way for USC Aiken was Wright, who netted a team-high 19 points. Zimmerman added 13 while Larsen and Porchea hit for 12 each. Santoine Butler came off the bench to grab a team-best 11 rebounds. Larsen and Alderman added nine and eight, respectively.
The Pacers canned 40.5 percent of their shots from the floor and out-rebounded the Hilltoppers 46-38. USC Aiken also held WLU to 22.2 percent shooting from downtown.
The Pacers conclude the season with numerous records, including a school-record 33 victories. Alexander's team was the first in program history to reach the Final Four. The contest marked the last game for seniors Rick Alderman, Alvin Brown, Kinley Branch, Santoine Butler, Paul Larsen, Shane Porchae, Derrick Scott, Jesse Seilern, DeVontae Wright and Ronald Zimmerman.