VIDEO: Chuck Benson Interview
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – Fifth-seeded Carson-Newman (23-7) cranks open NCAA tournament play in the Southeast Regional Saturday night at 8 against fourth-seeded and 25th-ranked Clayton State (23-6) at Tex Turner Arena in Harrogate, Tenn.
Carson-Newman is making its third NCAA appearance in the last five years, and its fifth all-time. Clayton State appears in the regional for the third time and the first in a decade. The Lakers have won at least one game each time they've made it to postseason play.
"Everyone is excited for this opportunity," head coach Chuck Benson said. "It's a great honor to still be playing when so many aren't. We've used this week to focus all of our efforts on our next opponent. I'm confident in our guys to be ready to play."
Carson-Newman is 1-4 all-time in NCAA tournament games. The Eagles are 33-18 in postseason play dating back to Carson-Newman's prolific NAIA tournament days. C-N will be looking for its first NCAA tournament win in 16 years. The Eagles won in the round of 32 in 2002, 77-66 over Johnson C. Smith behind 21 points from former All-American Kyle Gribble and a 17-point, 12-rebound double-double from Dustin Edwards.
The Eagles bowed out in the Sweet 16 that year to Shaw and future NBA player Ronald "Flip" Murray who scored 38 points to send the Bears to the Elite 8.
Chuck Benson is looking for his first postseason win as head coach of the Eagles and his first as a head coach since a 53-47 win over Spring Hill (AL) in the NAIA national tournament in 2002 while Benson was the head coach at Martin Methodist.
The Eagles are helmed as they have been for the past four seasons by All-American Charles Clark (Murfreesboro, Tenn.).
The SAC's leading scorer for three straight years, Clark broke past the 2,300-point threshold with his 59th career 20-point effort in the SAC quarterfinals against Newberry. He has 2,325 points for his career, becoming the South Atlantic Conference's all-time leading scorer in the Eagles' South Atlantic Conference semifinal loss to Queens.
Clark now eyes second place on Carson-Newman's all-time scoring list. Clark needs 31 points to match Tommy Everette (1967-70) and his 2,356 points for the second slot in C-N history.
The senior was on the Eagles' 2014-15 NCAA tournament team that fell to No. 23 Montevallo. Clark set a Carson-Newman NCAA tournament record for points in a single postseason game by scoring 27 against the Falcons.
Carson-Newman will be trying to snap a nine-game losing streak to top-25 teams. Carson-Newman hasn't beaten a ranked foe since downing then No. 6 Lincoln Memorial 111-109 in overtime on Nov. 12, 2016. All of the games on the Eagles' streak have come against teams ranked in the top 15. All but one of those games have been against teams in the top 10.
The Eagles enter the NCAA tournament with the nation's third most efficient offense (51.4 percent), sixth best defensive rebounding team (29.83), sixth best scoring offense (89.1 points), seventh best passing team (556 assists) and seventh most efficient three-point shooting team (41.0 percent)
Clayton State gets to the free throw line the most and makes the most free throws out of any team in the Peach Belt. The Lakers are 17th and 15th in the country in that regard.
"Anybody that rolls off 14 straight wins in the Peach is a great team," Benson said. "They've done a great job and it'll be a challenge for us. This is a different Clayton State team from what we played here a few years ago. They're a great team, and it'll take our best to beat them."
The Lakers have put together a campaign of historical proportions. This year's team has been among the best in program history with a 23-6 overall record, 19-3 mark in the Peach Belt Conference, a second straight league regular season championship and a berth in the PBC Tournament Championship Game.
The Lakers can tout a 14-game win streak that helped make most of those accomplishments a possibility. That stretch ranks as the second longest such streak in program history, trailing only the 2006-07 squad's 17 straight wins to start that season. They also enter the Field of 64 with a No. 25 national ranking, marking the first time they cracked a national poll since January 6, 2009.
"They haven't changed much stylistically from when we last played," Benson said. "Nathan Powell was on the team the last time we played and he's become their best player. Their style hasn't changed. But their personnel is much better."
Clayton State is led by All-PBC first teamers Nathan Powell and Jaylen Taylor. Head coach Jimmy Link was named the PBC Coach of the Year.
Powell is the Lakers floor general and enters the tournament averaging 12.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. A force in the paint, Taylor has posted marks of 12.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.0 steals while shooting better than 52-percent from the floor and 70-percent at the foul line.
C-N has won five straight against Peach Belt schools dating back to a Nov. 14, 2015 loss at home to Lander 72-65.
Tipoff between the Eagles and Lakers is set for 8 p.m. from Harrogate. Coverage will be available on the Eagle Sports Network on Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.