By Doug Gorman
Now, it's starting to get serious for the Clayton State Laker men's basketball team.
After taking a break for the Christmas holidays, head coach Gordon Gibbons' squad faces its biggest test of the year Saturday when it entertains Augusta State in a Peach Belt Conference game.
Augusta State enters the game against the Lakers ranked seventh in the most recent NCAA Division II coaches' poll, while Clayton State moved into the national rankings for the first time this season, coming in tied with Valdosta State at No. 25.
The Lakers and Jaguars have a rich history against each other, including last year when they played four times.
"The Clayton-Augusta rivalry has been between two of the top teams in the Peach Belt over the last four seasons," Gibbons said. "It's a big game for both teams. Also, everything is lined up for us to make a move. We just have to take it."
Although the Jaguars won three of the games, including twice in the regular season and once in the Sweet 16, Clayton State shocked Augusta State in the Peach Belt Conference tournament 63-62 on its way to winning the event and earning its bid the NCAA Division II's version of the big dance.
It was part of Clayton State's magical ride as it won four times in the Peach Belt Conference tournament, including a 89-87 overtime victory against USC-Aiken in the championship.
Gibbons' club then won two more games in the South Atlantic Regional, beating Aiken again by two points, 60-58, and Lenior Rhyne 83-69 in overtime, before finally getting knocked out of the national tournament by Augusta State, 89-72, in the final meeting between the two teams.
The Lakers and Jaguars are again two of the favorites to win the conference title and make a strong bid to be playing late in March at the NCAA Division II tourney.
Clayton State comes into the Peach Belt Conference showdown hoping to improve on its No. 25 nationally ranking.
The Lakers own an undefeated 8-0 record, including an 78-72 victory in the conference opener against UNC Pembroke on the road 11 days before Christmas.
So far, Clayton State has beaten its opponents by an average of 17.5 points, but the lofty average includes a 124-69 win against Carver and an 83-39 victory against Knoxville College.
It won't be that easy tonight.
Augusta State comes into the game with a 7-1 record overall and like Clayton State, has a conference victory under its belt after beating Georgia College and State University.
The Jaguars only loss came in a 70-68 decision to Division II-power Virginia Union.
Clayton State's biggest challenge might be stopping 7-footer Garrett Siler. The senior is attracting interest from several NBA scouts, who are expected to be at the Health and Fitness Center in Morrow for Saturday's 7:30 tip-off.
Siller is averaging 17.1 points per game.
His teammate Ben Madgen leads the team with an 18.8 average.
"There is no question they try to establish Siler inside," Gibbons said. "However, their perimeter players are more efficient and effective shooting the ball. They are a tough team to defend."
The Lakers will counter with some scoring threats of their own in hopes of knocking off the team that has become arguably the Lakers biggest conference rival.
Clayton State has spread the scoring wealth through its first eight games with four players averaging in double figures.
Bernard Fields leads the way for the Lakers with a 15.8 average. Teammate Freddie Williams is averaging 13.6 points per game. Brian Kelley is averaging 10.8 points per game and Ricky Garrett is tossing in 10.1 points per contest.
The two teams will meet again later this year when the Lakers travel to Augusta for a conference rematch on February 7th.
Women's Note: The Clayton State women's team will get action started in the conference doubleheader when they play Augusta State in a 5:30 p.m. start.
The Lady Lakers have flirted with the Top-25 poll, but have yet to get into the national rankings.
Still, another couple of victories should take care of that problem.
The Lakers lost the first game of the season to Barry University in Florida, but have since rolled off seven wins in a row, including a 76-68 victory against UNC-Pembroke in the league opener.
Clayton State's most recent victories came in a 61-45 victory against Stillman and a 89-64 win against Talladega in the annual Heritage Bank Holiday Classic.
Dominque Jennings, who has only played in six of the team's eight games, leads Clayton State with an 11.2 points per game average. Nikkisha Prittchett has played in all eight games and is averaging 10.4 points per game.