BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - The Claflin University Panthers are heading to the men’s basketball Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament Championship game for the first time in program history.
The Panthers accomplished the feat with a come-from-behind victory over Morehouse College, 77-69, in Friday’s first semifinal contest at the Bill Harris Arena.
Claflin, 24-6 on the season, will face Clark Atlanta, which defeated Benedict 74-72 in other semifinal game on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET.
After Friday's win, Claflin Coach Ricky Jackson was excited about his team's reservation in the championship game.
“The game is huge for our team,” Jackson said. “This is the first time the program has played for a SIAC Championship. I’m just happy for the university and the community of Orangeburg.
"Hopefully, we can finish it off and bring something back to Orangeburg, like a SIAC Championship.”
Triston Thompson led the Panthers scoring attack with a career-high 22 points, 14 coming in the first half. His previous best was 20 points in Claflin’s first meeting this season against Clark Atlanta. The senior point guard is averaging 17.3 points in the tournament and has scored in double figures the last seven games.
Benjamin “Tre” Williams also hit double figures for the Panthers, with 19 points, 16 coming in the second half. He also knocked down three of Claflin’s seven three-pointers.
Jaleel Charles, who saw limited time as the result of foul trouble, posted a double-double performance of 12 points and 12 rebounds for the Panthers.
Timothy Christian II and Tondric Johnson contributed nine points apiece for Claflin.
Morehouse, 25-2 record, was led by Omar Alston with 16 points, followed by Jordan Wallace and James Walker with 12 points each.
In defeating Morehouse for the second straight game, Jackson felt his team's ability to match up with the Maroon Tigers, along with the stingy Panther defense, were both big factors.
“I felt we matched up well against a great Morehouse team and it worked in our favor,” Jackson said. “We stayed together as a team and played hard, especially on defense.”
The Panther defense, ranked No. 1 in the SIAC allowing 65.7 points, held the league's top offensive unit in Morehouse (averaging 83.6 points) to just 69 points.
In the second half, Claflin defense came up big, holding the Maroon Tigers to 34.3 percent (12-of-35) shooting from the field and 4-of-20 (20 percent) shooting from three-point range.
In the final period, the Panthers watched Morehouse extended its 36-31 halftime lead to a nine-point cushion at 55-46 with 10:08 left, outscoring Claflin 19-15.
Over the next 3:44, the Panthers mounted their comeback, pulling within a point at 60-59 on a basket from Johnson with 6:17 left.
Morehouse managed to hold off the Panthers until Williams scored on a layup, giving Claflin a 67-66 lead with 2:46 left. It was the Panthers first lead since the 7:03 mark of the first half at 20-17.
Claflin quickly pushed the margin to a four-point advantage at 70-66 with 1:46 left on a free throw by Thompson and an inside score from Williams.
From that point, the Panthers scored seventh of the game’s last 10 points, five coming from the free throw line, in securing win.
In the first half, Thompson hit a trey 1:50 into the game to give Claflin an early 5-2 lead. The Panthers held the lead until the 6:45 mark, when Alston tied the game for Morehouse at 20-20 with a three-point play.
The contest was tied one more time at 24-24 with 5:01 left, before the Maroon Tigers finished the half on a 12-7 run to lead 36-31 at intermission.