By Doug Gorman
The No. 2-ranked Clayton State University women's basketball team might just be the best NCAA Division II team in the country.
They proved it Thursday night with an 83-81 come-from-behind victory over No.1-ranked Lander University in a contest between two unbeaten basketball teams.
Clayton State moved to 23-0 overall, and 12-0 in Peach Belt action. Lander suffered its first loss, dropping to 23-1 overall, and 13-1 in league play.
The Lakers' Tanisha Woodard hit the biggest basket of the night when she connected on the game-winning score with five seconds left in the contest. Lander still had plenty of time to get the ball down court after moving across halfcourt, but its shot attempt missed its mark, giving the Lakers the huge victory.
"That was an unbelievable college basketball game," said Clayton State Head Coach Dennis Cox. "I was a little disappointed with the way we played on defense, but I wasn't disappointed with the fight."
Thursday night's showdown lived up to its billing as the two teams played out the contest in front of a standing-room-only crowd inside the Athletic and Fitness Center gym on the Clayton State campus, in Morrow.
The Peach Belt Conference game began building up steam nearly two weeks ago, when Clayton State moved into the No. 2 spot in the national rankings, right behind rival Lander.
By the time the game ended, there were 10 ties and eight lead changes.
For a time, it didn't seem like CSU was going to have enough. "We felt like the little Dutchboy with his finger in the dike, every time we plugged one hole, another one would spring a leak," Cox said. "We had a lot of breakdowns; they are just able to beat you in so many different ways."
The win capped off two comebacks by the Lakers after they fell behind by double-digits both times. Clayton State went on a 10-0 run right before the end of the first half, thanks to two, 3-point shots.
Brittany Hall connected on the first 3-pointer during the late first-half surge and Woodard's trey, right before the end of the half, tied the game at 41-all at the break.
The Bearcats grabbed the momentum back late in the second half, when Jasmine Judge knocked down her own 3-pointer with 4:14 remaining in the game, to give her team a 79-69 lead. It was Lander's last field goal of the game as the Lakers defense took over from there.
Back-to-back baskets by Breanna Fort helped start the Lakers second 10-0 run of the game. After Hall converted a basket, the game was tied at 79-79.
The two teams then exchanged the lead one more time, with under a minute to go, and then, Lander's Mukia Myrick tied the game at 81-all with 36.7 seconds remaining, when she hit one of two free throws.
That set the stage for Woodard's game winner.
"We just had to keeping fighting," Woodard said. "We just kept telling ourselves 'One possession at a time.' We just knew we had to stay together."
Teshymia Tillman had been battling the flu all week, but shook it off in time for the game. She finished as one of five Clayton State scorers in double figures, leading the team with 24 points.
"My teammates actually encouraged me," she said. "They just kept saying, you got to get better, you got to get better. Before the game, I still felt a little bit woozy, but I just knew this game was very important. It wasn't about me, it was about my teammates."
Woodard and Hall each had 14 points in the winning effort, and Jonesboro graduate, Drameka Griggs, added 11.
Lander was paced by all-American candidate Shannon McKever's double-double. The senior finished the game with 24 points and 12 rebounds. Judge added 15.
Clayton State forced 27 turnovers en route to the victory.
The Lakers face Francis Marion at home on Saturday, starting at 1:30 p.m. If Clayton State wins that game, they could be ranked No.1 in the nation when the new Division II poll comes out next week.