One team went into the game with a 26-3 record and ranked No. 7 in Division II. The other was 14-12 and only 8-11 in Peach Belt Conference play.
Before tip-off of the Peach Belt Conference first-round meeting Friday night, USC-Aiken was recognized for having three All-Peach Belt Conference players plus the defensive player of the year and the coach of the year. Columbus State was recognized for having a single all-conference player, third-team selection Kenney Funderburk.
But for most of the night, it was hard to tell which team was the Peach Belt regular season champions and a legitimate threat to go deep into the NCAA tournament and which team's disappointing season was over.
Eventually, the team that was supposed to win did. Aiken escaped with a 69-64 victory over Columbus State. But the tough loss served as a reminder to the Cougars of what they could be next season.
"We can be what Aiken is now," said CSU coach Robert Moore. "We can be one of those top teams."
The effort was there Friday night for 40 minutes. The Cougars never let up and never gave up. That's a positive, because the effort has not always been there all season, at least not for 40 minutes.
The mood in the CSU locker room after the game was somber.
"They fought so hard," Moore said. "They see the promise. They felt like they gave it their all to win the basketball game."
Moore sees that as encouraging. No one left the Lumpkin Center content with just giving a good effort. The hurt was real, which shows that the Cougars care. That was not always evident during the regular season.
"I think they felt like they let people down this year," Moore said.
"I don't want to feel like this again," said Funderburk. "Nobody wants to feel this way."
Nobody ever likes losing. But sometimes, it takes the pain of failure to drive people toward success.
It starts with effort, but it takes more. It takes commitment to get stronger and better. It takes trust among the players. A prerequisite to all of that is leadership.
Funderburk acknowledged all of that. He led the team in scoring with 15.6 points per game. But he's a quiet kid. Leadership doesn't come naturally to him.
"We were looking for that this year," he said. "I blame myself a little bit for that. I've always been one to lead by example instead of vocally. I have a quiet personality. But I'm going to have to be more vocal."
But Funderburk is not alone. Other than a two-minute appearance by senior Brandon Dawson, the Cougars used eight players Friday -- seven juniors and a freshman, R.J. Sessions. Despite their experience, they haven't played together very much. Of those seven juniors, Dimitri Davis is the only one who signed with CSU out of high school. Funderburk, DeAngelo Kirkland, Shane Heyward and Ty Harris were new to the program this season. BJ Battle and Jahmad Saleem transferred in the year before.
So a full offseason of working together should be beneficial. Moore said the team will take a week off, then start back in the weight room. They added guard Cameron Baker, a Kendrick graduate who will transfer from Central Georgia Tech, to improve their perimeter game. The Cougars shot 2-of-17 on 3-pointers Friday night. Battle and Sessions were a combined 0-for-10. They ranked 11th out of 14 in the Peach Belt in 3-point shooting at 33.2 percent. They ranked next to last in assists at 12.6 and had the fifth-most turnovers.
Moore wants better point guard play and would like to add another post player to help Heyward and Kirkland.
"We're going to build on this game," Moore said. "The Peach Belt Conference is not a little boys league. It's not easy. Guys come here from junior college and they don't know they have to play hard every night."
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at email@example.com.