ALBANY -- It's good to be back.
The Albany State men's basketball team's returning leading scorer, Mario Morris, played in his first game this season and hit a key free throw with 8.4 seconds left and Marcus Benitez scored a game-high 24 points as the Rams defeated Claflin, 66-63, for the first time since the Panthers joined the SIAC in 2007.
ASU escaped with the victory after Claflin's Eric Salley -- who had a team-high 14 points -- barely missed a 3-pointer as time expired.
"It feels good to come back with a win. We hadn't beaten them in three or four years," said Morris, who had a slight tear in his ligament before the season started. "I think we slacked down a little bit (toward the end), but we held on to get the victory."
The Rams -- which led, 32-29, at halftime -- are now 3-5 overall and 3-1 in conference play after losing their first three games of the year.
"We didn't really play as well as we wanted to, but we started picking it up in the second half. I told these guys we have to take them out of their offense and take them out of what they (normally) do," ASU head coach Chris Cameron said. "As long as they came back in the second half, (that's all that matters)."
Albany State was down, 35-34, with 18 minutes left in the game, but went on a 17-3 run, started by Derek Jones' ferocious, two-handed putback dunk.
Claflin made it a three-point game (61-58) with 46 seconds left, but the Rams stayed focused the rest of the way.
"Down the stretch, we were disciplined, but we should have just controlled the tempo (better)," said Benitez, who hit four 3-pointers. "We tried to have discipline, but (some things) just (went wrong)."
Cameron said it was one of two biggest wins so far this season.
"I really don't know why we didn't play as well as we wanted to, but we ended up picking it up in the second half," Cameron said. "I told this team that the one thing about this (Claflin) team is that they're going to be efficient on offense -- they're going to run their offense -- but we were trying to take them out of that.
"We didn't do that in the first half, so we had to kind of give them a zone in the second half, so they wouldn't stay comfortable on offense."
Former Randolph-Clay star De'Andre Johnson added nine points for ASU, which play Alabama State at home next on Dec. 30.
"As long as focus is on their minds, that's what matters," Cameron said. "We want to come out ready to play."
Efe Uwadiae-Odigie and Darren Ball each had 11 points for Claflin, which fell to 5-4 overall and 4-4 in SIAC play on the season.
ASU WOMEN 74, CLAFLIN 52:
It was a good 21st birthday for starting junior guard Symone Wilkerson, as she led the Albany State women with 12 points and five assists in a win against Claflin on Thursday, which improved the Lady Rams' undefeated conference record to 4-0.
The ASU women were victims of an 8-0 Claflin run to start the game and a 9-0 run to start the second, but they never wavered and improved to 4-4 overall.
"We've been starting a little faster (this season)," Lady Rams head coach Robert Skinner said. "I think the break -- we haven't played since (Dec. 4 against Tuskegee) -- with 12 days off, they got a little bit (rusty)."
After the 8-point deficit to start the game, ASU's Breanna Fields scored six of the next eight points, leading the Lady Rams to a 17-1 run and 36-23 lead at halftime.
"We just needed to get adjusted," said Wilkerson, who also had six rebounds. "(We needed) to get back into the flow of the game."
Claflin outscored Albany State, 9-0, in the beginning of the second half, but the Lady Rams responded with a 10-1 run of their own, thanks largely to Beneidra Colbert, who had four points, a steal and two assists in the spurt.
"She's a big part of our team," Wilkerson said. "Because of her energy, it picks all of us up. Her hustle, her everything is just a big asset."
Colbert finished with 10 points for ASU, while Kourtney Alexander added 11 points and Callie Hamilton had 10. Lasaundra Barron led Claflin with 15 points and nine rebounds, while Natalie Davis and Brittani Jones combined for 27.
The Lady Rams don't have much time to celebrate, though, as they face a tough Valdosta State team today at 7 p.m.
"I can't go and celebrate my birthday until (tonight after the game)," Wilkerson chuckled. "We just have to focus (on today's game against Valdosta State)."