By Doug Gorman
The Clayton State women's basketball team knows by now whenever they play rival Columbus State the game is going to be close, especially when the Lakers' leading scorer is out of the lineup.
So it's no surprise, Tuesday night's quarterfinal matchup to open the Peach Belt Conference Tournament in Morrow came down to a shot at the buzzer.
But when Columbus State's All-American Phoebe Smith, the sister of Atlanta Hawk Josh Smith, missed a layup as time expired, the Lakers survived 65-64.
"We are fortune they didn't call a foul on the shot, but we played great defense," Clayton State head coach Dennis Cox said.
The Lakers now advance to the semifinals at USC-Aiken where they will play top-seed Lander on Saturday.
Tanisha Woodward's basket with under a minute to go was the final score for either team as the Lakers rallied from five down late in the game and held off the Cougars at the end.
"This was Peach Belt Conference basketball at its best," Cox said. "It was a great atmposhere. This is turning into a great rivalry."
Clayton State played the game without junior Teshymia Tillman, who ended the regular season averaging 17.1 points per game. Tillman sat out her team's thrilling victory while serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules.
She is expected to be back against Lander.
Four other players stepped it up in her absence.
Latonda Bruce paced Clayton State with 16 points. Woodward added 15, Genesis Kelly tossed in 13 and LaDe'sha Stoudamire finished with 10.
"I am so proud of this team," Cox said. "We have overcome adversity in the past few weeks."
Smith, who only had six points at the half, caught fire for Columbus State in the final 20 minutes, and led all scorers with 21 points.
Nikkki Urbizo scored 14 for the Cougars, hitting three 3-point shots at the half.
After both teams traded steals with under a minute to go, Columbus State, who beat the Lakers in a regular-season game in overtime two weeks ago, had a chance to win the game.
Smith took the ball rolled into the lane, but thanks to some bothersome defense by Clayton State, the ball bounced off the glass, giving the Lakers the dramatic victory.
The Lakers took control of the game in the first half connecting on five 3-point shots. The long-range jumpers helped Clayton State build a 40-30 lead at the half.
Clayton State used a late first-half push to build its double-digit lead. After Urbizo hit a 3-point shot to cut the Clayton State lead to 26-25, the Lakers went on a 10-0 run. Woodward's basket with 5:12 remaining in the first half gave the Lakers a 36-25 lead and capped the biggest run of the night for either team.
Columbus State didn't take its first lead until 9:10 remaining the contest when Ashley Stafford broke the second tie of the game, hitting one of two free throws to put the Cougars up 54-53.
The lead expanded to 60-55 a few minutes later, but the Lakers outscored the Cougars 10-4 down the stretch.
Bruce connected on pair of free throws and a basket down the stretch to keep the Lakers in the game.
Her basket late in the contest cut the Columbus lead to 64-63.
After Smith missed on a pair of free throws with 1:14 remaining, the stage was set for Woodard's basket to push Clayton State back in the lead for good.