By Brian Paglia
With 28 seconds left and Clayton State holding a four point lead, the Lady Lakers held a poised countenance that a tense game was finally in their control.
That was until Lenoir-Rhyne freshman forward Precious Elkins made a tough backdoor layup and was fouled in the process. The Lady Bears bench and fans erupted in elation. Clayton State guard Genesis Kelly encapsulated the Lady Lakers' mood, putting her hands on her head and heaving a sigh of frustration.
But even in the most tenuous of moments, Clayton State was disciplined in following their halftime orders to defend better and improve its free-throw shooting. Two free throws by Teshymia Tillman and one final defensive stop helped the No. 15 Lady Lakers escape with a 75-72 victory over No. 23 Lenoir-Rhyne in the finale of the Heritage Bank Holiday Classic on Wednesday night.
"I thought we just toughed it out," Clayton State coach Dennis Cox said. "I'm just really relieved."
The crucial moment in the game came after Lenoir-Rhyne center Brittany Mitch, a Duke transfer, hit a shot to put the Lady Bears up 55-51 with just over nine minutes left. Clayton State's patent pressure defense wasn't producing its customary results, and after Mitch's shot, Cox had seen enough.
For the next eight minutes, Clayton State (9-1) switched to a 2-3 zone defense with dramatic results. Lenoir-Rhyne scored just five points during that stretch, and the Lady Lakers built its largest lead of the game at 69-60 after two free throws with 1:11 left.
"Down the stretch I thought the key was we went conservative and stopped being so aggressive in the press," Cox said. "That was effective until the last minute."
Indeed, the last minute featured a furious comeback attempt by Lenoir-Rhyne, one that featured three 3s and Elkins' three-point play in a dizzying span of mere seconds.
But Clayton State continued its strong free throw shooting in the second half, making four straight in the waning seconds. The Lady Lakers made 19-of-25 free throws in the second half after going just 7 for 16 from the line in the first half.
Most came from the Peach Belt Conference's leading scorer Tillman, who was 9-of-11 from the line and led the Lady Lakers with 15 points and nine rebounds. Kelly hit three 3s in the first half to help Clayton State navigate a tumultuous first half performance, and finished with 14 points.
Much of Clayton State's production came from its starters, a stark departure from a lopsided victory the night before. LaDe'Sha Stoudamire scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Breanna Fort and Tanisha Woodard each had 12 points, respectively.
For one half those starters were outrebounded, unable to stop Lenoir-Rhyne's frenetic transition offense and on the ropes.
Enough of those problems were remedied in the second half for a significant victory.
"Games like that, two class teams like that, sometimes the tougher team's going to come out on top," Cox said.
"I thought we got tougher in the second half. We had to."