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Past keeps North Clayton focused

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Brian Paglia

bpaglia@news-daily.com

Everything about North Clayton's second round game in the Class AAAA tournament at Warner Robins feels so familiar to Lady Eagles coach Shaka Owens -- on the road, against an enigmatic opponent, facing a dynamic point guard.

Last season, Glenn Hill's standout guard Jessica Morton scored 35 points to derail North Clayton's season. Now, it's Warner Robins with Danielle Gazaway, and the Lady Eagles have used their experience from a year ago in practice to devise a game-plan that hopefully prevents Gazaway from foiling North Clayton's postseason run.

Owens said he used that Glenn Hills game as a "wake-up call" for his team Monday, a tool to maintain the Lady Eagles' focus, which waned during the regular season.

North Clayton (20-7) started the season 7-0 and moved into the PrepCountry.com/GACA Coaches' Poll. But then came the first wake-up call -- a humbling 75-41 loss to Hillgrove in a Christmas tournament. Then came another three games later -- the first of three consecutive losses to Drew, Mundy's Mill and Forest Park.

So North Clayton slid back into the ranks of the unranked, back into anonymity.

That was fine with Owens.

"I don't like a lot of hype. I'd much rather come in and silently beat teams," Owen said. "I have no problem with us not getting attention.

And matter of fact, the hype might have led to us losing some games that we weren't supposed to lose. ... The lack of attention is probably a good thing for my girls."

Owens noticed a change when North Clayton went into Jonesboro on Jan. 25 and won, 59-51. The Lady Eagles promptly won four of their next five games, including a victory over Westlake, who reached the Class AAAAA semifinals last season. Their only loss during that stretch was to sixth-ranked Forest Park.

"We started coming back around to how we started the season," Owens said. "I think it was just a loss of focus. I don't know if it was the Christmas break or what, but Jonesboro got us back on track."

Indeed, North Clayton advanced to the Region 4-AAAA championship game, where, in a third meeting with Forest Park, the Lady Eagles lost in overtime. With a strong start to the game, North Clayton put a scare into one of the top teams in the state and gained confidence.

"We have to come out in the first quarter and play as hard as we can," North Clayton forward Lorenda Holston said. "Not wait for them to come to you, but just go ahead and take it out of their hands right then and there."

Lacking a wealth of knowledge about Warner Robins (22-6), Owens said North Clayton must employ that same formula.

"We don't know very much about (Warner Robins)," Owen said, "so we're going to have to come out and play our game and hope that we're effective."

North Clayton hopes to cut down on turnovers -- the Lady Eagles had 20 in their first-round win Friday -- and defend Gazaway how it wanted to defend Morton last season. North Clayton led Glenn Hill at halftime and with 10 seconds remaining, but Morton took over down the stretch and ended the Lady Eagles season.

Gazaway can do the same. She leads three Demonettes that average in double figures, scoring 17 points per game. Against Woodland, she scored 25 points in a convincing 65-39 victory.

Owens said Gazaway will require the kind of attention North Clayton should have given Morton last season.

"If we can focus a total game ... then I'm pretty sure we'll be fine," Owens said. "But Glenn Hills was a wake-up call. Hopefully we won't have the same outcome."