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Fordham at Charlotte 49ers 7:30 p.m.

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49ers look to extend strong start against Fordham

By David Scott
dscott@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte 49ers freshmen forwards Willie Clayton and Darion Clark insist they don’t keep track of which one of them gets the most rebounds, whether it’s in practice or games.

“That’s not important,” Clark said. “What we want to do is get those rebounds from the other team. That’s what matters.”

The rapid emergence of Clayton and Clark – mostly through their work on the backboards – is a big reason why Charlotte (14-2, 2-0 Atlantic 10) is off to one of the fastest starts in program history. The 49ers try to stay unbeaten in the league Wednesday when they host Fordham (5-12, 1-1) at 7:30 p.m. in Halton Arena.

Coach Alan Major recruited the two freshmen to bring energy and toughness to a Charlotte frontline that’s been lacking both those qualities in recent seasons.

“I think they’re making all our guys better,” Major said. “They’re bringing a physicality that we haven’t had. That helps bring out the toughness in other guys. It’s almost contagious.”

The 6-foot-8 Clayton, one of Georgia’s top high school players last season at Thomasville High, has started all 16 games this season. He leads the 49ers and is fourth in the Atlantic 10 in rebounding at 7.7 per game (and is second in the league in offensive rebounding at 3.6 per game). He averages 8.9 points and is second in the league in field-goal percentage (60.9).

The 6-6 Clark grew up in Conyers, Ga., but comes from one of the country’s top basketball prep schools in the country, Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy. He started Charlotte’s first 13 games he was recently supplanted in the starting lineup by senior Chris Braswell – and averages 6.6 points and 5.4 rebounds.

And as strongly as they’ve started the season, they both know they’ve got plenty to learn, especially offensively.

“There’s a lot for them to process,” Major said. “It’s getting used to which shoulder you like, learning how to get angles or putting your body on guys to get deeper (in the paint).”

Said Clayton: “Sometimes I rush a lot of my shots because maybe I’m overhyped. I’ve got to remember it’s just a game and I’ve been in plenty of them. I’ve just got to slow down.”

Clayton and Clark aren’t the only freshmen having an impact on the 49ers. Guards Denzel Ingram and Ivan Benkovic are the team’s best 3-point shooters – Benkovic makes a team-high 41.2 percent, Ingram is at 31.3. And big man Mike Thorne, a redshirt freshman whom Major is bringing along slowly, has shown flashes of promise.

Clark understands what’s expected of this group of freshmen, which is Major’s second full recruiting class. Since taking over for Bobby Lutz in 2010, Major’s first two teams at Charlotte were a combined 23-37. And Clark knows a little something about winning: his Oak Hill team went 44-0 last season and was ranked No.1 nationally.

“The first thing we offer is hope,” Clark said. “They struggled the last couple years and we can bring some kind of hope that change is coming. Just stick with us. We’re turning things around in a positive way. I think there’s been a big difference already. We’re starting something good. We’ve just got to finish this season the way we started.”

Clayton stood next to his teammate, listened and nodded.

“He said it all,” Clayton said.

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
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