Photo by Heather Middleton
By Doug Gorman
The Clayton State women's basketball team has been to a Final Four.
They have rolled off seven consecutive seasons of 20 or more wins, and current head coach Dennis Cox has been a master of the recruiting game, building a pipeline to the school that includes a roster full of talented players that came to CSU either right out of high school, through the junior college ranks or by transferring in from a Division I university.
It's been a highly successful formula for the Cox-led program. Since arriving on the CSU campus in 2004, Cox has turned an average college basketball team into one of the best NCAA Division II teams in the country.
But the impressive script doesn't end there. Cox has posted a 171-43 record in part of seven seasons, and taken his club to the NCAA tournament every year, including in 2007 when they went to the Final Four.
To use a baseball term, another passion for Cox's when he isn't coaching basketball, the Lakers hit a home run when they hired him away from the junior college ranks at Daytona Beach Community College.
The success isn't lost on his boss, Clayton State athletic director Mason Barfield.
"It's a fit for coaches," Barfield said. "We definitely found a great fit in Dennis. He tells a story about his first year when they were 2-3, they won the next game and went on to win the conference championship that year."
CSU has been winning since under Cox's watchful eye.
Now, Cox is ready to lead CSU into perhaps the biggest home game in the history of the program tonight when the Lander Bearcats come to town.
The game matches the two top ranked teams in the country as No. 1 ranked Lander and No. 2-ranked Clayton State clash tonight in Morrow. Tip-off for the contest is set for 5:30 p.m.
"We have had a lot of big games here, but this is one of the most unique games," Barfield said. "We have two very good basketball teams, and I think it will be a lot of fun. It's great for the fans, and it's great for the conference. It will show just how good Division II basketball really is."
Cox wants to win the game, but is quick to point out the outcome won't make or break the season.
"They do get way bigger than this," Cox said. "This is a big game for fans. It's big for our program because of the attention we will get in the national spotlight. It's not the big game we are trying to get to. If this is one versus two for the national championship then they don't get any bigger than that. There isn't going to be any championships won in this one. Somebody is going to lose, and whoever that is, I still like their chances down the road."
Cox also knows CSU and Lander could meet again this year, probably in the Peach Belt Tournament, and maybe a third at the NCAA Tournament.
For the winner of tonight's game, it's a chance to stay unbeaten, take control of the Peach Belt Conference and gain the upper-hand to host an NCAA Regional.
Both teams have almost identical statistics. Clayton State is averaging 80.4 points per game, while giving up just 57.1 points per contest. Lander is scoring 77.9 points per game, while yielding 58.8 points per game.
"These are the games you want to be a part of, as a player and a coach," Lander head coach Kevin Pederson said Tuesday as his team went through its preparations for tonight's showdown.
The Lakers are led by Teshymia Tillman, who is averaging 14.6 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game.
Teammate Tanisha Woodard is averaging 12.6 points per game.
Woodard knows what a win can do for the program, but she also realizes this is just one game on the schedule.
After tonight's contest, there's still more work to be done. Clayton State has five games remaining, all conference showdowns with plenty at stake.
"Basically, we are just going to go into it like it is any other game," Woodard said. "We are not going to do anything different. We are just going in with the same attitude."
Tillman was held out of practice early in the week after suffering flu-like symptoms. Cox is hoping she will be ready to answer the call once the game tips off.
Clayton State will have to stop Shannon McKever and her 17.6 points per contest and Tashiba Butler's 10.1 points per game.
McKever is also averaging 11 rebounds per game.
Lander is capable of scoring inside or with the long-range jumper.
"They are so balanced," Cox said. "They have an all-American post player. The best low post player we have seen. They have arguably the best 3-point threat in the country. So what you have is that inside and outside threat. That makes it really tough because you have to extend your defense for the 3-point shot and then they can beat you inside."
A year ago, the two teams split their games with Lander winning the regular season game and CSU taking the rematch in overtime during the semifinals of the Peach Belt Tournament.
"It's a good friendly rivalry," Cox said. "Not only do us coaches like and have respect for each other, but the players truly respect each other. That's why it will be a great game and both teams will really get after it."