By Jeffery Armstrong
The Clayton State Lakers started the 2003-2004 basketball season on a good note, defeating the Southeastern College Crusaders 81-62 at home Saturday night.
The win puts the Lakers at 1-0 for the season and they don't play until a trip to Charlotte for the Charlotte Classic Friday, Nov. 21.
The Lakers displayed a good mixture of speed and strength, something that looks to be their trademark all season long. Clayton State raced to a 29-11 first-half lead, but the Crusaders whittled the lead to 10 at 33-23, thanks to timely 3-point shooting.
The Lakers then employed their quick, trapping defense, which flustered the Crusaders for the next several minutes. Lakers Craig Butts and Lamar Rodgers (formerly of Mt. Zion High) made consecutive baskets off steals from that trap to push Clayton State's lead to 39-23. The score was 45-26 in favor of Clayton State at the half.
"I think our press bothered Southeastern quite a bit," said Lakers guard Kevin Young. "I think our size, speed and depth got to them. We're pretty deep at every position and that can be a problem for a lot of teams."
The Crusaders, an NAIA team that plays in the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association (NCCAA), started the second half with a 9-4 run to get within 14 at 49-35. Southeastern tried to force the Lakers to shoot from the outside by employing a zone defense, but that didn't work. Clayton State showed great patience and managed to work the ball inside for easy layups against the zone. Layups by Butts, Leon Parker and center B.J. Puckett put the Lakers up 75-48 with 6:58 left in regulation and the Lakers cruised the rest of the way.
It's a good thing Clayton State was able to score inside because there outside shots weren't falling. The Lakers managed to shoot only 38 percent in the second half, but they played great defense, holding the Crusaders to 33-percent shooting.
High scorers for the Lakers were Puckett and Butts with 16 points apiece and Parker added 11 off the bench. Sherman Merricks of Southeastern led all scorers with 20 points, followed by Johnnie Grant with 14 and Cliff Robinson with 12.
"I started off slow this season but with all the reps I've been getting, I'm getting more confident," said Puckett, who transferred to CCSU from Truett McConnell. "I think we're going to turn heads in the Peach Belt Conference this year."
Lakers head coach Gordon Gibbons was pleased with the win, but ever the coach, he had a few gripes.
"We gave up 17 offensive rebounds and we also turned the ball over (16 times) more than we did in the preseason games," Gibbons said. "But in fairness to the team, Southeastern kept us off balance most of the night. We did push the ball well and we did outrebound them (49-42) so I'm happy with that."
Notes: Southeastern won 21 games last year and made it to the NCCAA championship game, losing by four points?Lakers head coach Gordon Gibbons and Crusaders head coach John Dunlap have been friends for 15 years. The two became friends when Gibbons coached in Florida years ago.