Photo by Heather Middleton
By Doug Gorman
The Clayton State women's basketball team knows the scenario.
Win six games and cut down the nets as the NCAA Division II National Champion.
Lose just once and go home until next year.
It's the same task facing all 64 remaining NCAA Division II women's teams as its version of March Madness gets underway today at sites around the country, including at Clayton State, as the Lakers play host to the eight-team Southeast Regional starting this afternoon when they meet Francis Marion at 6 p.m.
Clayton State comes into the tournament ranked No. 2 in the country, but trying to recover from their first loss of the season last week against USC-Aiken at the Peach Belt Conference tournament.
In addition to the Lakers, the Southeast Regional Tournament features some other powerhouses from the Peach Belt Conference.
No. 6-ranked Lander and No. 8 USC-Aiken are all in the tournament and bring their top-10 rankings into the tournament
Francis Marion and Georgia College are also in the tournament out of the Peach Belt.
Georgia College has beaten Lander this season and also had a remarkable run in the conference tournament, winning the event last Sunday.
Wingate and Tusculum who are members of the South Atlantic Conference, and Barton College from the College of Carolinas received at-large bids
Today's other first round games include USC-Aiken vs. Tusculum ( 1 p.m.), Lander vs Wingate (3 p.m.) and Georgia College vs Barton (8 p.m.)
"No round is easy," said CSU coach Dennis Cox. "When Francis Marion is your No. 8 seed, you know you have a tough field. We know we have a huge task ahead of us because we have such a tough region. We have three teams who are ranked in the top-10. As good as those three teams are, they didn't even win the Peach Belt Conference Tournament."
On paper, the Lakers should be the team to beat. After all, they finished the regular season undefeated including a victory over a Lander team who was ranked No. 1 in the country at the time.
That allowed Clayton State to spend four weeks as the top team in the country.
Saturday at the Peach Belt Conference Tournament semifinals, the Lakers' undefeated season took a hit when they lost to USC-Aiken 73-72 in overtime. Clayton State had a couple of chances to win the game at the end, but couldn't get some close in shots to fall.
It was a crushing blow for a team that had been perfect for 29 games, but Cox knows the slate has been wiped clean as the team starts the postseason.
"It could be as long as a six-game season, or as short as a one-game season," Cox said. "It doesn't matter what your record was because your record is the same as everybody else now. The significance of what we did was we earned the right to host this region. I do know after playing most of the teams in this tournament, things have to fall our way."
Cox's biggest challenge this week was getting his team refocused after the loss.
"Physically, we are fine," Cox said. "Mentally, we are trying to massage ourselves between the ears. It was a big blow. I am not going to pull any punches. We have never gone through an entire regular season undefeated (before this year). So when we lost that game on Saturday, it didn't end our season, but it ended something special."
The Lakers come into the first-round game generating plenty of offense and stout defense.
Clayton State is averaging 80 points per game and giving up just 57 points per game.
A trio of players are averaging double figures for CSU with Tesymia Tillman leading the team with a 20 point per game average.
Tanisha Woodard is averaging 11.8 points per game and Drameka Griggs 10.4 points per game.
Brittany Hall, who is averaging 9 points per game, was named to the All-Peach Belt Conference team.
When Clayton State played Francis Marionin in the regular season, the Lakers won 80-60 behind Tillman's 27-point performance.
Clayton State and Lander are on a collision course to meet again in Monday night's championship final. When the two teams played during the regular season, Lander was ranked No. 1 in the country and the Lakers No. 2.
The Lakers pulled out a dramatic 83-81 home win in front of a sold out gym.
Several things have to pan out before the two teams can think about a rematch.
That includes finding a way to cool down Peach Belt Tournament champion Georgia College and runner-up USC-Aiken.
Tusculum was the Southeast Regional winner last year, and won their conference tournament this year. Wingate finished second in the SAC to earn its at-large bid.
Barton College got into the tournament by winning the College Carolinas Tournament.
Semifinal action tips off on Saturday with games at 5 and 7:30. Monday's title game starts at 7:30.
Admission is $8 for adults. Students from participating schools can get in for $3 with a valid student I.D.