For weeks now, those driving along Magnolia Street in Orangeburg have noticed the fences, construction signs and land-moving equipment.
It’s all part of the ongoing expansion taking place at the Jonas T. Kennedy Center at Claflin University.
However, only those who stopped in to pay closer attention realized the building process that was taking place in recent years inside the building's Tullis Arena, with the Panthers basketball team.
This past weekend at the conference tournament in Birmingham, Alabama, in his fifth season at the Claflin helm, Ricky Jackson coached his Claflin men's team to the first Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship title in the history of the Panther program.
“I’m just happy for the team, the guys worked hard and earned this,” Jackson said. “I’m also happy for the institution here at Claflin, the student body, all the administration and staff who share in this with us, and of course the Orangeburg community.
“I knew what I was capable of doing and we’ve been blessed to meet the goal (of winning a conference title). This is where the program is headed; we have gotten better every year that we have been here. In our fifth year, it has paid off for us.”
Through injuries and setbacks, the Panthers (25-6 record) found a way to compete week in and week out this year. But they were built that way too.
“The team is constructed that way, so we wouldn’t miss a beat,” Jackson said. “We’ve got interchangeable parts, so that helps a lot.”
Members of the Panthers team have even said there are two starting fives on the roster, bolstering the confidence that if one or two players get in foul trouble or struggle with their play, others will step in and step up their game, as they have all season.
“It’s been good (coming back to campus) soaking it (student and fan support) all up, but it’s still been a bit surreal, and we’ve still got unfinished business,” said Claflin 6-foot-9, 255-pound senior center Jaleel Charles (Far Rockaway, N.Y.), who was named the Most Valuable Player for the SIAC Basketball Tournament. “We took a couple hours off and then we got back to it.”
The business at hand is regional play, having won an automatic bid into the Division II version of March Madness. At noon this Saturday at Morehouse College in Atlanta, the Claflin team will play in the program’s second NCAA Division II Men’s Regional, the first since receiving an at-large bid in 2009.
The Panthers will be taking on a familiar foe, opening the regional against the Clark Atlanta Panthers, the same team Claflin split with during SIAC regular-season play and beat, 69-61, this past Saturday to capture the SIAC title.
“Every school I’ve ever played for I try to get a championship there,” Charles said, having posted a double-double of 18 points and 10 rebounds in the conference championship game. “I’ve been telling the guys here who are younger than me – since I did win as a freshman in juco (at Nassau Community College) – seize the moment.
“Now that we are here, we have to go get it. Nothing is handed to us. The guys believe in me, so being named MVP is just extra motivation for me to play harder for them. People wrote us off before the tournament even started. So, we went there with a chip on our shoulder, and we’ve been playing that way since the beginning of the season.”
That “chip” came mostly from an early exit in the conference tournament in 2017. This Panthers squad carried it early in the regular season, wanting to avoid losses at all costs, even establishing a 16-game win streak. It’s also part of what motivated Claflin to avenge losses at Morehouse and Clark Atlanta late in the campaign.
“It’s going to feel good to look back, years from now, knowing we were the first guys to bring the (conference) championship here,” Charles said. “But you’ve got start somewhere, then the pavement is already paved. That way the journey can continue for whoever is next to come here.
“We set the bar; but there’s always a higher bar to be reached.”
Charles, who represented Claflin on the SIAC All-Conference first team, is averaging 13.7 points, 1.4 blocked shots and 8 rebounds per game. The Panthers also get 12.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game from senior guard Benjamin “Tre” Williams (Salisbury, N.C.). And junior point guard Triston Thompson (Washington, D.C.), who was named to the SIAC Basketball Tournament all-tournament team, averages 9.6 points, 2.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game.
“We learned a lot from the losses this year and we stayed together, focusing on progressing this season,” Thompson said. “From the winning streak through, we learned to stay humble and just maintain.
“The unity, we are one team and we believe in each other. One man goes down, the next man steps up. We are just looking forward to facing Clark Atlanta again. For me, it’s all about my leadership and energy, maintaining my attitude. We have a very confident coaching staff and we all believe in each other.”
The Panthers hope to have redshirt 6-foot-9 junior center/forward Austin Lawton (Lake Marion High) back for regional play. The dominant post defender (9.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.9 blocked shots per game) suffered an injury in Claflin’s semifinal game in the conference tournament. He didn’t play in the championship game, but Jackson said that the team “should have Austin back to help us in some way in regional play.”
If Claflin wins the regional opener, the Panthers will be matched up on Sunday against Saturday’s winner between No. 2 seed West Florida and No. 7 seed Barry.
“I made the preseason very tough, because I felt that we fell short the last couple years,” Jackson said. “They answered the call all season long.
“Even though there were some bumps in the road, from start to finish I felt like we were built to win this (conference title).”
Now, the Panthers will find out if they were built to win an NCAA regional.