For a Claflin men’s basketball team that prides itself on winning with defense, a big offensive outburst was a welcomed sight to take Thursday’s 97-91 home conference win against Miles College.
The Panthers (15-1 overall, 8-0 in SIAC play) led from late in the first half to the final horn to take their 14th-consecutive win.
Austin Lawton, a redshirt junior center from nearby Lake Marion High, led the way with 22 points, a game-high 14 rebounds, a game-high 4 blocked shots, 4 assists and a steal. Fellow starting 6-foot-9 center Jaleel Charles added 10 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocked shots.
Guard Benjamin “Tre” Williams added 19 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists, while guard Tondric Johnson added 18 points, 6 rebounds and 3 steals. Guard Triston Thompson added a game-high 7 assists, along with 5 points, 4 rebounds and a steal.
“We have been playing defense and that has been the key, even though tonight we didn’t play any,” Claflin head coach Ricky Jackson said. “Playing on the road for most of these game, defense is what pays off for us.
“Tonight was just one of those nights where we executed in the halfcourt and found our scoring. Miles played hard and well, but there wasn’t much defense out there. This was a good tune-up game to get us back going this semester.”
Miles (2-9 overall, 1-3 in SIAC play) was led by guard Sheldon Wright’s game-high 27 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists, along with guard Jeffrey Dockett’s 20 points, guard Carl Garcia’s 15 points and 6 rebounds, and forward Nathan Sheffield’s 12 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists.
Williams sparked the first-half success for the home team, making all 5 of his 3-pointers to lead all scorers with 15 points at the half. Lawton added 10 first-half points, along with 8 first-half rebounds.
“Our camaraderie together has led to these wins; all the guys, most of us have been together 2-plus years, so we know how each of us likes to play and that’s helps us gel together and be successful,” Lawton said. “It started ever since we lost last year in the first round (of SIAC Tournament play); nobody talked on the bus, everybody was on their phones in a group message saying we know this feeling and we don’t want this feeling.
“And, after our first loss this year, coach ran us to death. So we don’t want that feeling again. Definitely want to keep adding to the left-hand column on the record. It all starts with our defense. We know our offense is going to come. To have all the guard play we have, that can move the ball around so well and then dish to us down low, it makes our job so much easier.”
For the game, the inside-out play in half-court sets was so steady that the Panthers didn’t score a single fast-break point in transition and didn’t need one.
Albert “Trey” Miller made the first free throw of the game with 4:40 left in the first half, giving Claflin a 37-23 lead. But Miles got three consecutive 3-pointers from Miles, Sheffield and Garcia to make it a 37-31 game late in the period.
The Panthers outscored Miles 10-8 the rest of the half and led 47-39 at the break. The home team gained the advantage thanks in part to making more 3-pointers than the visitors attempted in the opening period. Claflin went 10-for-16 from behind the arc, while Miles went 4-for-9.
Johnson, who scored 15 of his 18 points in the second half, opened the scoring in the second frame with 5 quick points to give the home team a 54-40 lead two minutes in the half.
Both teams kept up a steady scoring pace, but a Lawton dunk near the 7-minute mark put Claflin up 81-69, and his hook shot inside the 3-minute mark made it an 88-81 game heading down the stretch. The Panthers made 8 of 14 free throws in the final two minutes of play to keep the lead for the victory.
For the game, Claflin made 17 of 31 free throws, while Miles made 12 of 20 free throws. The Panthers went 14-for-22 from 3-point range, while the Golden Bears went 11-for-23 from long range.
Claflin also doubled up Miles with second-chance points, getting 15 points on putbacks compared to just 7 second-chance points by the Golden Bears.
The home team lost one player to friendly fire midway through the first half, when starting forward Timothy Christian II slammed into Charles near midcourt as the two post players were hustling to make a steal on a Miles’ pass. Christian came away with a bloody nose and was checked for concussion symptoms, not returning to play for the rest of the game.
Claflin returns to action on Saturday, playing host to Tuskegee University at 3:30 p.m., before finishing the homestand on Saturday, Jan. 13 against Paine College with a 3:30 p.m. tip-off.