Kenney Funderburk and Shane Heyward did everything they could Friday night to extend Columbus State's season.
In the end, the duo's efforts weren't enough, as USC-Aiken battled back to defeat Columbus State 69-64 in the Peach Belt Conference tournament quarterfinals at the Lumpkin Center.
The fault for the loss couldn't be laid at the feet of Funderburk nor Heyward. The junior pair was responsible for more than half of the Cougars' (14-13) points, after all, as Funderburk had a team-high 21 while Heyward contributed 17.
"I just want to commend my guys for coming out tonight and playing with a lot of toughness," Columbus State coach Robert Moore said. "I thought it was like an Ali-Frazier fight. We just came out on the short end of the stick. You could tell why USC-Aiken was 27-3 and one of the top teams in the country. They made more plays than we made to win the basketball game."
Columbus State certainly had its chances, though.
It seemed the turning point came with just 10 minutes to play. Down 43-41, Funderburk found himself in a one-on-one matchup behind the arc on the right elbow. As he shot the ball, he was knocked to the ground.
It didn't matter.
The ball never touched the rim as it went through the net.
Though he didn't convert the free throw on the four-point play opportunity, his teammates helped him out on the next trip down the floor.
DeAngelo Kirkland got loose on a fast break to lay the ball in. Like Funderburk on the previous possession, he too was fouled. Unlike Funderburk, he made his free throw, giving the Cougars a 47-43 lead.
But the Pacers (27-3) refused to quit, showing the level of play that helped them go 18-1 in the Peach Belt during the regular season.
Over the next seven minutes, USC-Aiken went on a 17-6 run to retake the lead at 60-54.
At the same time, the Cougars' offense went ice-cold. After a layup by Heyward at the 8:00 mark, Columbus State went five and a half minutes without making another field goal. The drought was finally ended by Heyward, who converted on a layup once more with 2:34 remaining.
The Cougars fired one last salvo with just 1:04 to play, as Heyward went 1-for-2 from the free throw line to cut the lead to 62-60.
On the ensuing possession, however, USC-Aiken guard DeVontae Wright made a 3-pointer the old-fashioned way hitting a jump shot, getting to the charity stripe and making his free throw. At 65-60 with just 50 seconds left on the clock, the deficit was too much for Columbus State to overcome.
The Cougars' late push was emblematic of a back-and-forth second half, with neither team able to give itself much breathing room. The last 20 minutes saw eight lead changes and three ties.
After looking over the stat sheet, Moore blamed one area for the team's loss: The free throw line. Noting it's been the Cougars' "Achilles' heel" all season, it came back to bite them once again down the stretch Friday night. Columbus State made just 54.5 percent (12 of 22) of their free throws, compared to the 69.2 percent (18 of 26) effort from USC-Aiken.
The 3-point line wasn't kind to the Cougars, either, as they made 11.8 percent (2-for-17) of their attempts. It didn't bother Moore, however, explaining what he believed was the reason his team's woeful 3-point percentage.
"I thought late we had to take some rushed threes just because we wanted to try to stay in the game," he said.
Columbus State never lost contact with USC-Aiken in the first half. Even though the Cougars won the opening tip, they were unable to edge ahead in the first 10 minutes.
The Cougars grabbed their first lead at the 9:58 mark, as Funderburk's jump shot put them on top 15-13. Thanks to four more points by Funderburk, Columbus State eventually extended the advantage to 20-13 with just under seven minutes to go in the first half.
But then the Pacers began to claw their way back. USC-Aiken finished the final six minutes on a 14-6 run to head into the locker room with a one-point lead. But to do so, it needed some last-second magic.
With time winding down and Columbus State up 26-24, senior guard Ronald Zimmerman pulled up behind the 3-point line and let it fly. His shot swished through the net as the buzzer sounded, putting the Pacers in front 27-26 at the half.
It was a play that left the teams taking divergent views on its importance.
Pacers coach Vince Alexander pulled no punches, calling the shot "huge" for his team.
"It was a very, very big shot and that's what Ronald does," he said. "'Tae'" (Wright) knows that and he did a phenomenal of drawing the 'D' and kicking it to him. And then Ronald just rose up and shot it and made it. ... I think it gave us some hope going in at halftime."
Moore begged to differ.
"I dont think so," he said when asked whether the shot deflated the team. "I think our guys realized our backs were against the wall (as it was)."
Still, the Cougars pushed their opponent to the brink. It unfolded exactly the way Moore predicted, Funderburk said.
This time, it just didn't turn out in their favor.
"Coach has been preaching from Day 1 that its going to be a game of runs," Funderburk said. "Aiken made a run, we made a run. They made more runs at the end and we couldnt withstand (it)."