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Coach Darrell Walker leads Clark Atlanta into NCAA tournament after winning SIAC title

The former NBA player and coach did it in his first year at the school

Not long after the final buzzer sounded and his Clark Atlanta University Panthers were the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) tournament basketball champions after beating Fort Valley State University, 64-62, first-year head coach Darrell Walker dropped his head into his hands.

Walker, the former NBA player, assistant coach and head coach, helped lead Clark Atlanta to its fifth SIAC championship and an NCAA Division II tournament bid. Clark Atlanta (21-11) will now face the South region’s No. 1 seed and host the University of Alabama in Huntsville (24-7) on March 11.

The program made 15 trips to the conference championship game but had won only four times. In his first season, Walker and the Panthers have achieved what once looked out of the program’s reach. “I wanted to come in and win,” Walker said on Monday, not long after he and assistant coach Alfred Jordan made their regular Monday morning classroom checks.

“From day one, when I accepted the job, I was just trying to take a look at the players we had and once I saw them I knew we had a pretty good team. Could I say I expected to be here when I first got on campus? No. But I had no doubt that I could coach and that they could win.”

The Panthers won nine games a season ago and are now headed to the school’s fifth NCAA Division II tournament appearance. The 180-degree turn for Clark Atlanta has local news channels and media outlets jumping on the bandwagon. It’s unlikely than any of the city’s other Division I and Division II college basketball programs — Georgia Tech University, Georgia State University and Morehouse College — will make the NCAA tournament. Both Georgia Tech and Georgia State will have to win their conference tournaments, and Morehouse College was not invited to the Division II tournament.

“You look at the year before when we had nine victories and more than 20 losses, and now we have 21 victories and are preparing to play in the NCAA tournament, it’s all due to coach Walker and the kids buying into what he wanted them to be as a program,” said Clark Atlanta sports information director James Vallone.

“I continue to thank Dr. Johnson and Mr. Dawson [Clark Atlanta’s president and athletic director] for taking a chance on me when a number of schools turned me down,” said Walker, who got his first NBA head coaching job at age 34 with the Toronto Raptors. There’s a good chance those programs will be watching the postseason from home, too.

With the score tied at 59 with 2:22 remaining in the championship game against Fort Valley State, the Panthers and Wildcats exchanged free throws. Fort Valley State then went ahead by two points following a mid-range shot by senior guard Jalen Crawford — the younger brother of former NBA guard Jordan Crawford — with just 32 seconds remaining.

Walker called a timeout to get his team together to get a final shot. His options were reduced after two starters, senior Lawrance Triplett and junior Damien Davis, fouled out. Chuka Eneh, a 6-foot-7 senior reserve from Dallas, had the answer, hitting a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left, giving Clark Atlanta the two-point lead that would ultimately be the winning margin.

Eneh only played seven minutes on March 4, and most likely would not have been in the game if not for Triplett and Davis fouling out. Walker trusted Eneh, and Eneh trusted his shot, and now both are champions. “It felt good to know that coach trusted me,” Eneh said. “He was really getting at me, so I’m just glad that I made it for him and for my team.”

That’s what Walker has brought to Clark Atlanta — trust in the process and program. “I’m here and we’re not going anywhere,” Walker said.