Photo by Heather Middleton
By Doug Gorman
The Clayton State Lakers (31-1) and Lander Bearcats (29-3) will meet Monday night for the second time this season.
There will be a whole lot more at stake then when No. 2-ranked Clayton State upset then No. 1-ranked Lander 83-81 a month ago.
This time, the two Peach Belt Conference rivals will play in the NCAA women's Division II Southeast Regional Finals, with the winner advancing to the Elite 8. Tip off is set for 7 p.m. at the Athletics and Fitness Center on the Clayton State campus.
Clayton State advanced to the regional finals with a 97-71 victory over Barton. Lander defeated USC Aiken 85-68. USC Aiken beat the Lakers at the Peach Belt Conference Tournament last week for CSU's only loss.
"That Barton team got our attention," CSU head coach Dennis Cox said. "I just thought they were very focused. They challenged us. They are so athletic. I'm really happy to get that win. I just thought it was a dog fight. We won by 26, but it was a lot closer than that. I just thought we out lasted them."
Trailing 38-37 at the end of the first half, Clayton State put together an offensive explosion over the final 20 minutes as it outscored Barton 60-33 in the second half.
"I thought we did a better job of attacking the rim in the second half," Cox said. "We knew we had to attack it off the dribble and finish strong at the rim."
Five different players finished in double figures for the Lakers. Drameka Griggs led the way with 22 points. Latonda Bruce finished with 17 and Brittany Hall 15. Teshymia Tillman added a double double for the Lakers with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Tasnisha Woodard scored 14 points.
Nyeshia Willard and Jannetta Robinson added 23 points each. Jolanda Mitchell scored 10 points for the Bulldogs.
Clayton State and Barton exchanged the lead six times before the Lakers took control of the contest with its second-half surge.
Tillman's basket with just over 14 minutes left to play in the game gave CSU the lead for good at 47-45.
About a minute later, Clayton State connected on back-to-back 3-point shots from Hall and Bruce to help the Lakers take a 57-48 lead.
The Lakers pushed the lead to double digits on Tillman's basket, going up 61-50.
Woodard's basket helped the Lakers complete a 14-3 run that basically put an end to Barton's second upset in the tournament.
Barton advanced to meet Clayton State with a upset over Georgia College, the team that won the Peach Belt Conference Tournament. The Lakers moved into the semifinals with a win over Francis Marion.
Against the Bulldogs, Clayton State lived at the free throw line, hitting 33 of 51 attempts.
Griggs finished the contest 12 of 16 from the free throw line.
"Barton is a very good team," Griggs said. "Every game is an opportunity to do something big. At any given moment, you have to step up, you have to understand this could be your last game. You just step up like I did and make things happen.
Monday's championship might have a hard time living up to the last game when a packed CSU gym watched a contest that wasn't decided until the final few seconds. The victory helped the Lakers take over the No. 1-ranking in the national NCAA Division II poll.
Clayton State stayed there for almost a month before falling one spot in the rankings with the loss to Aiken at the conference tournament.
"I know the implications. We have been watching Lander all year long," Cox said. "They look as good now as they have all season, if not better. They are really playing good basketball. We are looking forward to the challenge, and that's what we worked for. That (first) game could have gone either way, I think we won it because of how loud our gym was. I hope it's like that again."