Claflin eyes ultimate prize in NCAA Division II Tournament

ORANGEBURG, SC (WIS) - For Claflin senior Jaleel Charles and his teammates, the feeling he's had after winning the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament hasn't left him since last Saturday.

"Feels great," the Panthers center said. "Still feels a little bit surreal."

The Panthers captured their first SIAC Tournament title with a 69-61 win over Clark Atlanta. It's a victory that outside of Orangeburg believed was possible.

"A lot of people doubted us," said Claflin senior guard Triston Thompson said. "So, we just took it all in."

The Panthers, led by eight seniors, had a certain edge about them to start the season. That edge never left their side.

"Definitely motivated," Thompson said. "We all come from different places and backgrounds. We all came together."

"We had a chip on our shoulder with such a senior group," added Charles.

Claflin had a lot to prove. After all, the Panthers had never won more than 17 games in a season under head coach Ricky Jackson prior to this season.

"My team picks up on my personality a little bit," Jackson said. "During the course of our preseason conditioning, I was tough on them and they responded."

They responded in a big way. This year, Claflin set a program record with 16 straight wins. The Panthers finished the season with a 25-6 record and a conference title. Now, they'll enter the NCAA Division II Men's Tournament with eyes on the ultimate prize.

"That's our goal," Jackson said. "That's all I think about is for us to cut down that final net."

Claflin's path to the title starts with a familiar foe. The Panthers will see conference foe Clark Atlanta in the first round on Saturday at noon at Forbes Arena in Atlanta.

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