Peach Belt tournament: USC-Aiken men, Clayton State women win tourney titles

The basketball net, recently cut from the confines of the rim, hung around South Carolina-Aiken senior Re’Mon Nelson’s neck following his team’s 65-60 win over Montevallo in the men’s Peach Belt Conference tournament championship game on Sunday at the Lumpkin Center.

The guard, who had just won tournament Most Valuable Player honors, said the win was something he was excited about, but only for a short time.

“After I leave here, I’ll take (the net) off and forget about this,” he said. “We’ll move on to our next goal.”

The next goal is to win its opening-round game in the NCAA tournament, an opportunity it clinched with its tournament victory. The loss left Montevallo’s fate up in the air, though coach Danny Young said he believed his team had done enough to be selected.

Montevallo (20-9) nearly did enough to put itself in Aiken’s position.

The Falcons led by four at halftime and began the second half on a 10-0 run that gave them a 41-27 lead with 16 minutes left in the game. The team’s defense, which had held Aiken (22-7) below 30-percent shooting in the first half, continued to play well in the second and it dominated the rebounding battle.

Beginning with just over 14 minutes remaining in the game, however, the Pacers began to make their move. Ronald Zimmerman knocked down a couple of shots, one of which was a 3-pointer and DeVontae Wright knocked down a 3-pointer of his own. In a matter of a minute and a half, Aiken had cut the Falcons’ lead to six points.

After a Montevallo bucket, the Pacers scored straight points to take their first lead since the 8:22 mark in the first half. They would briefly relinquish it moments later, but took the lead for good with a pair of free throws from Nelson with five minutes remaining.

“They hit us, but we responded,” coach Vince Alexander said after the game, noting later that his team’s willingness to attack and pressure the ball was a major difference in the game. “I kept saying we needed to attack. We needed to pressure them and wear them down.”

That attack mode resulted in 27 free throw attempts, 21 of which they made, compared to just nine for Montevallo.

“That was definitely the difference in the game,” Falcons coach Danny Young said. “We didn’t get to the foul line. We just got away from what we were supposed to do.”

Nelson led Aiken with 20 points. He added four assists, which gave him 497 for his career, a Peach Belt record. Kinley Branch scored 16 points off the bench for the Pacers, six of which came on two early 3-pointers that helped spark the team early.

“It’s always good to give the team a spark,” Branch said. “I know this was my day.”

Montevallo was led by Troran Brown, who had 17 points.

Clayton State women 81, North Georgia 54

Top-ranked Clayton State had five players score in double-figures, forced 33 turnovers and cruised to a victory over the Lady Saints in the women’s Peach Belt Conference tournament final on Sunday at the Lumpkin Center.

The win was Clayton State’s (29-0) 29th in a row, matching a team record.

Drameka Griggs led the Lady Lakers’ charge with 18 points, seven assists and eight steals, en route to being named the tournament Most Valuable Player. Shannon Smith added 13 points and six rebounds in the game.

North Georgia (14-15), which was led by Jaymee Carnes (13 points), fell behind by as many as 20 in the first half, but battled back for a 12-point halftime deficit. Out of the break, however, Clayton State scored 18 straight points and held North Georgia without a field goal until the 10-minute mark, effectively ending any chance the Lady Saints had at the upset.

“I was very firm with the team (at halftime),” coach Dennis Cox said. “As hard as I’ve gotten on to them in awhile. This was one of our goals, but not the only goal. For the most part, we’ve done a good job staying focused.”

David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.