Lakers making their third 'Elite Eight' appearance in five years

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

From Staff Reports

The Clayton State Laker women's basketball team is three games away from the ultimate prize - the NCAA Division II National Championship. It all comes down this week in the NCAA Division II "Elite Eight" in St. Joseph, Mo.

The No. 2-ranked Lakers (32-1) take that first step on Tuesday with a 1 p.m. showdown against No. 15 Bentley (28-4) at the St. Joseph Civic Arena. This is the third NCAA Division II "Elite Eight" appearance in the last five seasons for Clayton State. The Lakers advanced to the NCAA Division II "Final Four" in 2007 and the "Elite Eight" in 2009.

Clayton State earned a berth to the Division II "Elite Eight" by virtue of a 76-60 victory over Lander in the Southeast Region championship. Bentley, meanwhile, advanced with a thrilling 64-61 victory over Pace in the East Regional championship.

In Bentley, the Lakers will face one of the best traditions in Division II women's basketball. This is the 28th appearance in the NCAA Division II National Tournament for the Falcons - the most ever in NCAA Division II women's basketball - and advancing to the NCAA Division II "Elite Eight" for the 11th time in program history. The last time Bentley was in the NCAA Division II "Elite Eight" was in 2003, ironically also in St. Joseph, Mo.

Head coach Barbara Stevens is in her 25th season at helm of the Falcons and 34th season overall with stints at both Clark and Massachusetts prior to coming to Bentley. She has the most victories of any women's head coach at the Division II level with 821, and only legendary Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt has more victories than Stevens at any level.

She joins Summitt, former Texas head coach Jody Conradt, Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer and North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell in the elite 800-win club.

This season, Stevens has put together one of her younger squads in recent seasons at Bentley, as evident by the fact that a freshman leads the Falcons in scoring. Freshman center Jacqui Brugliera is averaging 15 points and nine rebounds a game, while shooting 45 percent from the field and 76 percent from the free throw line. She was selected the Northeast-10 Conference Freshman of the Year.

The catalyst is All-Northeast-10 performer Kim Brennan, a senior who is averaging 11 points and four assists a game, while shooting 82 percent from the free throw line. Another freshman post, Lauren Battista, is averaging 13 points and seven rebounds a game, while shooting 54 percent from the field and 78 percent from the free throw line.

Clayton State counters with an athletic squad centered around senior forward Teshymia Tillman and junior guard Tanisha Woodard.

A first team All-Peach Belt Conference and first team Daktronics Division II All-Southeast Region selection, Tillman leads Clayton State in scoring, averaging 15 points a game. In the last game against Lander, Tillman became the sixth player in Clayton State women's basketball history to eclipse 1,000 career points.

In addition, with eight more points, Tillman will become the first player in Laker women's basketball history to record back-to-back 500-point seasons.

Woodard, a first team All-Peach Belt Conference selection and Peach Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year, leads the Peach Belt in steals (3.4 spg) while also averaging 12 points and five rebounds a game. She set the Clayton State career mark for steals this season, and has now reached 300 career steals.

It doesn't end with Tillman and Woodard. Cox's Lakers are balanced with eight players averaging at least seven points a game. Sophomore point guard Drameka Griggs as been a spark off the bench, averaging 11 points a game, while junior guard Brittany Hall averages 10 points and leads the Peach Belt Conference in 3-point percentage (44 percent).

Should Clayton State win, the Lakers would advance to Wednesday's 6 p.m. (CDT) semifinal game against the winner of Shaw and Metro State. The NCAA Division II Women's Basketball National Championship game is set for Friday at 7 p.m. (CDT) at the St. Joseph Civic Arena.