From staff reports
The Pittsburgh Steelers had the "Steel Curtain," and the Minnesota Vikings had the "Purple People Eaters," and if the Clayton College & State University men's basketball team keeps up its suffocating play on the defensive end, the Lakers will be destined for a nickname of its own.
The Clayton State defense led the Lakers Saturday to its biggest win of the season Saturday and one the of biggest in school history, defeating eighth-ranked the University of South Carolina Upstate 61-59 at G.B. Hodge Center in Spartanburg, SC. Clayton State had never defeated a NCAA Division II team ranked in the top 10.
After Upstate raced out to an 8-0 lead in the first two minutes on two three-pointers and a shot from the field by Charleston Long, the Lakers flexed their defensive muscles in the final 17 minutes of the period holding the Spartans to only 13 points over the stretch. Clayton State led 27-21 at intermission and the entire second half.
The win vaults the Lakers into a tie with Upstate for the top spot in the Peach Belt Conference, as both teams are 7-2 on the season in league play. The victory also sets up what will be one of the biggest games in school history on Wednesday with the Lakers traveling to face defending national champion and metro Atlanta rival Kennesaw State in a 7:30 p.m. game. The Owls will enter the game with a 6-2 record in the league. In the second half of Saturday's game, the Lakers pushed their lead up to 16 points, 42-26, at the 12:24 mark on a lay-in by junior T.J. Waldon. Clayton State led by double-digits except for a couple of possessions until Upstate made a late run.
The Spartans cut the deficit to five points, 53-48, with 1:37 remaining on a three-pointer by Luke Payne, but Clayton State came right back with junior Maxi Rios hitting two free throws. Upstate answered again with a three-pointer by C.J. Paul only to have the Lakers strike immediately with a long inbounds pass to Rios that resulted in a layup on the other end, giving the squad a six-point 57-51 lead with 1:33 remaining.
Clayton hit its free throws down the stretch to seal the victory with senior Craig Butts draining 4-of-4 in the final 20 seconds. The Lakers improve to 15-9 overall, while Upstate drops to 15-5 and 7-2 in the league.
Butts, who a had career high Wednesday 26 points in the team's win over Columbus State, matched that effort with 26 points against Upstate, hitting 8-of-14 shots from the floor to go along with 14 rebounds. Behind Butts, Rios chipped in 11 points, followed by Waldon with six points. For Upstate, Long finished with 23 points and seven boards.
The Lakers shot 43 percent (21-of-49) from the floor, while holding Upstate to 38 percent (20-of-53) from the floor. Clayton State dominated on the boards, holding a 42-27 rebounding edge but did commit 29 turnovers compared to 22 for Upstate.