The Claflin men's basketball team might have gotten a collective wake-up call with consecutive road losses in Atlanta last month.
But, after avenging a loss to Morehouse last week, the Panthers gave Clark Atlanta (20-2 overall, 14-1 in SIAC) its first Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference loss in a thrilling 85-80 game inside Tullis Arena on Monday night.
Claflin (19-5 overall, 12-4 in SIAC play) may be hitting its stride for the stretch run and the conference tournament. The Panthers play at Benedict this Saturday at 3 p.m. in an ESPN3-televised game. After that, they close out the regular season at home against Benedict (Feb. 17) and at Paine College (Feb. 19).
On Monday, four players scored in double figures for Claflin, including local Lake Marion product and redshirt junior center Austin Lawton (16 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 blocked shots and a steal), senior guard Tondric Johnson (15 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists), junior guard Triston Thompson (12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal), and senior guard Benjamin "Tre" Williams (12 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists). Senior center Jaleel Charles added 7 points, 8 rebounds and a blocked shot, before encountering some foul trouble that took him off the court. Sophomore forward Jordan Jones added 8 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.
Clark Atlanta was led by Shelvick Henry's game-high 25 points (including 4-for-5 on 3-pointers), Akil Douglas' 20 points (including 6-for-6 on free throws) and Mark Burton's 15 points (including 4-for-6 on 3-pointers).
The visitors were willing to win or lose by the long ball, shooting 29 3-pointers and only making 11 of them. Claflin, meanwhile, made just 3 of 15 shots from behind the arc.
Play was sloppy for both teams in the opening 5 minutes of play, leaving the game tied at 5-5 after a 3-point play from Henry. Burton made back-to-back 3-pointers near the 11-minute mark of the first half, giving the visitors an 18-10 lead.
"This helps our confidence going forward, and I'm proud of the guys for how hard they played tonight," Claflin head coach Ricky Jackson said Monday, before he talked with his team about the win. "We've just got to be patient in games, knowing (early on) that we are feeling each other out. It's like a boxing match; the first couple rounds, the guys are going to spar.
"The guards are the toughness of our crew. If they have a good night, most of the time they can bring our big boys along and we get good production. Those guys come in here and work on their shot every day. So, I wasn't surprised that we hit shots when we needed them. It's a good team win. We need this momentum going forward."
After the slow start, Burton made both free throws after Claflin was assessed a technical foul, giving the visiting Panthers a 25-13 lead with 8:15 left in the opening period.
But, back-to-back 3-point plays by Johnson and Lawton brought the home team back within 8 points, 27-19, with 7:30 left until intermission. Thompson then led the late charge before the half, scoring back-to-back driving layups as Claflin surged for 17 late points to tie the game at 36-36 with 51 seconds left. The late run saw Williams sandwich a jumper between two sets of made free throws by Jones, leaving the game deadlocked at the break.
Charles opened the second half with a breakaway dunk, getting the Claflin students and fans in attendance back on their feet for an exciting second half of play. The teams passed the lead back and forth for the opening 3 minutes of the half. But Claflin built a lead with a Thompson layup being followed by a pair of free throws for Lawton for a 53-44 advantage at the 14:28 mark.
Johnson grabbed back-to-back steals, setting up Claflin scores near the midway point of the half, as the home team went up 61-47 on a dunk from Lawton at the 11:30 mark.
Clark Atlanta wasn't leaving without a strong late effort, though, as Henry tied the game, 63-63, with a driving layup at the 6:45 mark. Johnson then made back-to-back treys, sandwiched around two made Clark Atlanta treys.
Thompson then stole the ball and assisted his brother, Tyler Thompson, on the break for a lay-in and a 76-72 Claflin lead with 3:15 remaining. In the final two minutes, Tyler Thompson and Williams combined to make 5 of 6 free throws, while Lawton altered shots near the basket and grabbed defensive rebounds to secure the win.