By Doug Gorman
When Clayton College and State University made its decision to move from NAIA competition to the NCAA Division II level nearly a decade ago, most of the sports made a smooth transition.
For the women's basketball team, however, it's been a bumpy ride. Now, the Lady Lakers might be on the right track.
After winning both the Peach Belt Conference regular season and tournament titles, the Lady Lakers are headed to the NCAA Division II basketball tournament for the first time in school history.
Clayton State begins tournament action Friday afternoon at Shaw University in Raleigh starting at 3 p.m against Newberry University.
"I am so happy for our seniors," said Clayton College and State University athletic director Mason Barfield. "They are going to experience going to the national tournament. It's a reward for sticking it out and working hard."
Clayton State's (24-6) enjoyed its turnaround under the direction of first-year head coach Dennis Cox, who guided the team to a record number of victories.
The Lady Lakers earned an automatic bid to their first ever NCAA tournament with the 83-76 overtime victory against Columbus State. The win also helped Clayton State ease its bad memories of losing to Columbus State twice during the regular season.
"They have been a nemesis for us all year, so beating them to win the conference tournament was a big confidence builder for us," said Cox. "Now, that Kennesaw State is leaving the league, I think they are going to become our biggest rivals."
Had Clayton State lost in Sunday's championship game, they were still guaranteed a spot in the national tournament. Still, the Lady Lakers weren't leaving anything to chance.
"We weren't talking about the fact that we were all ready in," said Cox. "We knew we just wanted to beat Columbus and get the automatic bid."
Jasmine Patterson gave the Lady Lakers a huge offensive lift as she scored a school record 35 points in the championship en route to being named MVP of the tournament.
Clayton State takes on a Newberry squad which earned an at-large bid after completing the regular-season with an 18-11 record.
"They are a lot like us in that they struggled last year," Cox said. "This time of year, you can't overlook anybody. There are a lot of good teams staying home, so anything can happen."
The success of the Clayton State basketball team has generated plenty of excitement around the Morrow campus.
"This is what is great about small college sports, it helps generate plenty of interest around campus, and sort of brings interest the school might not otherwise get. People are starting to come out to our games, and they are starting to learn about Clayton State," said Barfield.
"This was the women's basketball team's breakthrough year. Our men enjoyed their breakthrough year four years ago, they won 18 games this year and we are disappointed with that. That shows how improved that program is. Now, the women's team has arrived."