CHARLOTTE – Winston-Salem State is headed back to the CIAA championship game.
The Rams withstood a furious rally from Claflin to win 58-56 in front of about 7,500 in a CIAA Tournament semifinal game at the Spectrum Center on Friday night.
The Rams, who are back in the championship game for the first time in 2015, will play Fayetteville State at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. The Rams will be going for their 12th CIAA title in the 75-year history of the tournament and first since 2012.
Doing the most damage for the Rams (18-10) was Robert Colon with 19 points.
Colon hit two free throws with 40 seconds left to give the Rams a 57-56 lead, then he picked up a loose ball on a turnover from Claflin’s Brandon Davis with 23 seconds left. Justice Kithcart made one of two free throws with 22.4 seconds left to give the Rams a 58-56 lead.
The Panthers (15-16) had a chance to tie it but a missed shot was rebounded by Xavier Fennell of the Rams with three seconds left. Fennell missed both free throws and the Panthers had a desperation shot from halfcourt but it missed and the Rams survived.
“It was a hard-fought game and you have to give credit to Claflin and Coach Ricky Jackson because they came into our league from the SIAC and he’s very respected in this conference,” said Coach Cleo Hill, Jr. who is in his second season at WSSU.
The Rams were seemingly in control of another low-scoring game and had a 55-49 lead with 1:29 to go. But Jaylen Alston got tangled up with Cornellius Reynolds in a scramble for a loose ball and both were called for a technical foul for staring each other down.
Because Alston had also been called for a technical foul in another stare down with Nkem Ojeh earlier in the game, he was ejected. With 1:11 left Davis made a 3-pointer and then converted on a layup with 51 seconds left to cut the Rams’ lead to 55-54.
Hill said that Alston will be eligible for the championship game despite getting ejected for the two technical fouls.
Disaster struck in the form of a Jon Hicklin turnover in the backcourt and Reynolds scored to give them a 56-55 lead with 40 seconds to go.
But Colon hit two free throws after he was fouled on the in-bounds play and the Rams had the lead for good.
“I believe Claflin is the most energized team in the league because they just send five guys out there to keep playing and they keep coming at you,” Colon said. “They are scrappy and are real physical so I knew it would be a physical game.”
Backing Colon was Alston, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds while Kithcart and Hicklin had six points each. The Rams had 18 turnovers and shot just 36 percent but a flurry by Colon early in the second half was an emotional lift they needed.
In a span of six trips down the court Colon hit three straight 3-pointers and when Kithcart made a 3-pointer with 11:15 to go the Rams were up 44-35.
“I felt like the spacing was there when we were in our offense so I felt like they were there so I took the shots,” Colon said about his flurry of points. “After I hit those three three’s I just felt like we had to keep making stops and luckily we made enough of them.”
Colon, a senior who is the seventh-leading scorer in school history 1,699 points, lost out to player of the year in the CIAA to Roger Ray of Livingstone.
Hill knew that Colon, who was 6 of 15 shooting, would eventually find his shooting stroke in the tournament.
“He should have been player of the year,” Hill said. “And we figured he would put his stamp on this basketball game to get us to the championship game since 2015. We figured he would put his stamp on it at some point.”
Reynolds led the Panthers with 18 points and 16 rebounds with two assists and two steals and Davis, who fouled out late, had 12 points but his key turnover as he was going in for a layup was pivotal. Davis somehow fumbled the ball and Colon chased it down while hitting the deck he had the presence of mind to call timeout.
When asked about the senior move, Colon smiled and said: “Yes sir.”
In the first half, the Panthers had has much as an eight-point lead but a late rally by the Rams sliced into their lead by halftime.
Hicklin’s layup cut the lead to five and the Panthers had the ball but a turnover gave it back to the Rams with 3.6 seconds left. Colon then got the in-bounds pass took a couple of dribbles and made a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to cut the lead to 27-25 at the break.
“I thought they had the momentum the entire first half so Rob’s 3-pointer was a big swing,” Hill said. “We felt coming to halftime that was one of our worst halves of the season. You look down at the score sheet but we were only down two.”
The Rams didn’t help themselves in the first half by missing five free throws in a row. They wound up just 3 of 8 from the foul line in the first half and from the field they weren’t much better shooting 37 percent.
Colon was asked if not being player of the year in the conference motivated him in this tournament.
“To be honest, my motivation is this is the last year the tournament is in Charlotte and my grandfather, who passed away last year, was from Charlotte,” Colon said. “I’m just really playing for him.”
In the first semifinal, Fayetteville State advanced thanks to balanced scoring led by Jalen Spicer and Will Brown with 12 points each. Darian Dixon added 11 points as the Broncos improved to 24-7.
The Golden Bulls (20-8) had 17 turnovers and shot just 33 percent from the field. Cayse Minor, a senior from Winston-Salem, led the way with 18 points and four rebounds. Justice Goodloe, a sophomore from Winston-Salem, added nine points and four assists and Austin Nelson chipped in with eight points.
Both of the Fayetteville State teams are now in the women’s and men’s championship games for the third time the history of both tournaments.
The Rams beat the Broncos twice during the regular-season but there will be a lot more at stake on Saturday. The winner will get the conference's automatic berth to the Division II Atlantic Region tournament.