Photo by Heather Middleton
It's no longer a secret.
The Clayton State women are a very good basketball team.
Maybe the best NCAA Division II squad in the country.
The Lakers staked their claim to that argument Thursday, knocking off No.1-ranked Lander 83-81 in a Peach Belt Conference game that for weeks had been brewing as a classic.
Played in front of a standing-room only crowd in a tiny gym on the Clayton State campus, the No-2-ranked Lakers showed those in attendance, maybe for the first time, just what a great product head coach Dennis Cox puts on the floor.
It's something he has been doing ever since he stepped on the Lakers' campus in 2004.
Cox has never failed to win at least 20-games. His been to the NCAA tournament every year, including one trip to the Final Four in 2007.
Yet few people have taken notice.
In a city saturated with sports, CSU has flown under the radar. quietly going about winning, often playing in front of small, but faithful fans.
Over the last seven years, the question surrounding Clayton State has been not if the team would get to the NCAA Tournament, but just how far it would go.
With Thursday night's dramatic victory against fellow Peach Belt power Lander, Clayton State is firmly planted as one of the nation's best NCAA Division II teams.
When the new poll comes out next week, more than likely the Lakers will be sitting on top of the Division II basketball world.
All Clayton State has to do is beat Francis Marion Saturday afternoon.
The key now for Cox is to keep his team grounded. The veteran coach knows Thursday night's victory was big. You might even say it was special, but it doesn't make the season.
If the script plays out like it should, CSU and Lander aren't through meeting this year. They could easily face each other in the Peach Belt Conference tournament and again in the NCAA Tournament where the stakes are even higher.
Staying focused is a message Cox was sure to convey to his team shortly after Thursday night's dramatic win.
Clayton State athletic director Mason Barfield said minutes after the game hoped those in attendance Thursday night would be back now that they have discovered Clayton State basketball.
It was a perfect environment for college basketball, but even if they don't.
Clayton State is going to go right on winning.
After all, that's what Cox and the Lakers have always done.
(Doug Gorman is the sports editor of the Clayton News and Henry Da)