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ATLANTA – In a contest that was back and forth all game and included runs by both teams, Tajai Johnson ignited one last surge which time wouldn’t allow Fort Valley State to recover from.
Johnson, a 6-2 senior, scored 25 points, including four 3-pointers, to lead the Panthers to a 77-69 win over the Wildcats in a Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) battle at Epps Gymnasium on January 26.
With 3:11 left in regulation, Kris Bell (12 points) scored a putback layup to pull Fort Valley even at 66-66. But nearly a minute later, Damien Davis (12 points) found Johnson for his final 3-pointer of the game and a three-point Clark Atlanta edge.
After Ray Mobley missed a 3 of his own on the other end, Tim Sanders (seven points, five assists) got the ball to Johnson for a fast-break layin and 71-66 lead with 1:52 to go. Less than 30 seconds later, Sanders made a steal and found Derek Harper (10 points off the bench) for a breakaway layup to extent the run to 7-0.
Jalen Crawford (22 points) answered for Fort Valley State with his fourth 3 of the evening but Davis countered with a layup and Johnson converted a steal into breakaway layin to finalize the scoring.
Lawrance Triplett had 10 points and nine rebounds for the Panthers, who won their third straight game and improved to 12-7 overall, while upping their conference record to 6-2.
“It was a much-needed win,” Clark Atlanta coach Darrell Walker said. “These next three games are going to be very important. Fort Valley was right there in the conference standings. We are all bunched up then you got Benedict up at the top along with Claflin. We just got to take it one game at a time.”
Despite dominating the glass 48-35, the Wildcats fell to 8-11 overall and 6-4 in the SIAC. Anton Hurst grabbed eight rebounds and Denard Williams pulled down seven boards to go along with three emphatic rejections.
“I told my team I was really proud of the way they executed down the stretch and took care of the ball and defended on the other end,” Walker said. “Of course, we got to do a better job of rebounding. They pounded us on the glass but when you are small that is going to happen sometimes. When we did rebound we were able to outrun them and get easy baskets.”
The score was nearly even in the first half until Clark Atlanta made the first run of the game, a 14-4 burst which was sparked on a 3-pointer by Chuka Eneh and capped on a reverse layup by Harper, who became nationally recognized for a mind-blowing dunk against Lane earlier this month, for a 34-22 advantage.
But Fort Valley responded with an 11-0 surge with 4:03 left in the half to eventually enter the locker room trailing 36-33 at the break. The Panthers remained ahead in the second half until the Wildcats put together an 8-0 spurt that was ignited and capped on shots from deep by Mobley for a 57-52 score in favor of Fort Valley with 11:26 left.
“When they went up 57-52, I told our guys it’s a game of runs,” Walker said. “I changed my defense up a little bit. We went to a zone and that kind of threw them off a little bit. Then we were able to get some turnovers.”
During the next eight minutes, the Wildcats never led by more than four points and the Panthers only led by two.