Albany State’s Rachard Lofton looks to pass Saturday against Fort Valley State during the Rams’ 87-79 homecoming victory. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — Albany State’s Joe Williams stood at center court long after the final buzzer of Saturday’s 87-79 upset victory over SIAC top dog and bitter rival Fort Valley State, still letting the moment sink in.
It was a moment and a victory the Rams had been waiting for all season.
Or as Williams put it, “forever.”
“We have been waiting forever for this,” said Williams, one of eight seniors who played their final home game in front of a capacity homecoming crowd. “Really, it’s been since August. We all came (to campus) at the same time and knew we had the team to do this.”
The win didn’t give the Rams any trophy or even any bump up in the SIAC East Division standings.
It simply gave them validation.
“This is who we have been. We took a look at ourselves in the mirror, and we always knew we had this potential,” ASU coach Chris Cameron said, “but it just took a little longer to reach it because we have a lot of new guys, and it took some time to get them to play together as a team and win as a team.”
It took a whole season, but the Rams certainly know how to win now. They’ve won four straight and have suddenly become one of the East Division’s most dangerous teams with victories against No. 1 Fort Valley and No. 2 Clark Atlanta during their streak. They are now 11-12 overall and 8-7 in the conference and are sitting in a tie for fourth with Benedict, just percentage points behind Clark Atlanta.
Saturday’s win against a Fort Valley State team that had won 14 of its last 15 games proved that ASU’s late-season surge is no fluke.
“This is the kind of win we have wanted to get all year,” Cameron said. “We have had three or four games where we have been playing against good teams and we had them, but we couldn’t finish the deal. We have been looking for a signature win all year. And this is it.”
Fort Valley was undefeated on the road in conference play so far this season, and the Wildcats showed why in the opening minutes by opening up an 8-0 lead and holding the Rams scoreless until Williams found a bucket with 17:20 left in the first half.
ASU eventually tied it at 10-10 with 14:50 left in the half on a James Lodman 3-pointer. The rivals stayed locked in a back-and-forth battle for the rest of the half, including a stretch at the 10-minute mark when Albany State senior Eric Martin threw down a one-handed dunk in traffic, Fort Valley’s Brandon Davey responded with a deep 3-pointer, Martin came back with another highlight reel dunk before Davey knocked down another 3-pointer.
It all happened within a matter of seconds, and with each play the crowd grew louder.
“It was a great atmosphere,” Cameron said. “It was a sell-out crowd. It’s good when you have that many people come out and support the team. It says something about what we are trying to accomplish.”
ASU took a 43-38 lead into the locker room at halftime and never backed down in the second half, stretching the lead to as many as 14 with six minutes left. But to the surprise of few, Fort Valley charged back in the final minutes and cut the lead to three with 2:13 left.
However, in the last two minutes ASU hit 8-of-10 free throws to seal the victory and head into today’s regular season finale at Clark Atlanta with tons of momentum.
“We knew that if we got an early lead that they would come back and fight,” ASU sophomore Darshtyn Baker said. “They are the No. 1 team in the conference for a reason. We just kept our composure and executed the game plan.”
Former Worth County star Jamorris Gaines and Lodman led ASU with 15 points each, and Baker added 14 points. Larry Bullock had an off-night shooting the ball from long range but still finished with 10 points and was 5-of-6 from the free throw line.
Davey scored 32 for Fort Valley and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds. The Wildcat senior from Warner Robins had 23 points by halftime, hitting 5-of-6 from beyond the arc in the first half.
“But one man can’t beat a whole team,” Williams said.
As a team, the Rams shot 50 percent from the field and 73 percent from the free throw line and held Fort Valley to 44 percent shooting from the field.
With one game left in the regular season, the Rams can finish as high as second and as low as fifth in the tightly bunched East Division standings. The SIAC tournament will be held March 3-8 in Birmingham, Ala.