Photo by Heather Middleton
By Doug Gorman
Through 35 games, the Clayton State women's basketball team has rolled over most of the squads that tried to get in the way.
A 34-1 record and No. 2-ranking in the NCAA Division II poll has made for the best season in school history for the Lakers.
Now, there's one more chapter to write before the 2010-11 story comes to the end as the Lakers play No-3-ranked Michigan Tech (31-2) tonight for the NCAA Division II national title in St. Joseph, Mo.
It's the first time Clayton State has battled for a national title in any sport, and tonight's 8 p.m. tip-off will be broadcast to a national audience live on ESPN2.
"Awesome - a blessing," said senior Teshymia Tillman about playing in the biggest game of her career. "It seems like I have been playing forever, and I've won only one championship in my life. But our entire focus this year was to win a national championship. It's like a second family here and I wouldn't rather be here with no one else but them. It's just a blessing,"
Clayton State set the stage for its best campaign ever, finishing the regular-season with an undefeated 28-0 record, including a victory over rival Peach Belt Conference foe Lander in February. That win, helped the Lakers jump into the No.-1 spot in the poll, and they stayed there for nearly a month.
The Lakers' only loss of the season came in a 73-72 overtime decision to USC-Aiken in the semifinals of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament.
Clayton State earned the right to host the NCAA Southeast Regional, and quickly regrouped from its loss in the conference tournament, breezing through the regional with wins against Fracis Marion (79-54) , Barton (97-71) and the rematch with Lander (63-46) .
Since arriving in St. Joseph, the Lakers have beaten Bentley 84-61 and Shaw 63-46. In both games, Clayton State turned close games at the half into double-digit, blowout victories.
Against Bentley, Tillman led the Lakers with 22 points. Kayla Mobley added 13 against Shaw.
Head coach Dennis Cox, who was just name National Coach of the
Year, has led Clayton State to at least the Elite 8, three out of the last five years.
Now, he just hopes the Lakers can cap off the season by winning the biggest basketball game in school history.
"There are really no words to describe how I am feeling. I'm just so proud of the way these kids have worked," Cox said in a phone interview from Missouri Thursday afternoon. "This is every team's goal when the season starts, and for us, it has chance to come to fruition."
The Lakers face a Michigan Tech team that knocked off No. 1-ranked Arkansas Tech (69-58) and Northwest Missouri State (89-78) to set up tonight's showdown with the Lakers.
Tonight's game should be a contrast in style.
The Lakers made it to the championship using a fast-break transition-style, while Michigan Tech prefers the half-court, slower-paced game.
Clayton State enters the championship averaging 80.1 points per contest. Defensively, the Lakers are giving up just 57.6 points per game.
Michigan Tech is averaging 69.8 points per game, while giving up 54.6 points per contest.
"Whichever team forces its will on the other one is probably going to win the game," Cox said.
The Lakers have spread the offensive wealth this season with Tillman leading the way with 14.9 points per game. Tanisha Woodard is averaging 11.6 points per game, and Drameka Griggs, who played her high school basketball at Jonesboro, is averaging 10.9 points per game.
Three players are also averaging in double figures for Michigan Tech as Lisa Staehlin leads her team with a 12.4 points per game average. Lucy Dernovesek is chipping in 12.1 points per game and Sam Hoyt 11.9.
Cox saw something special in his team even before it played its first game, a 80-69 victory over Catawba.
"I just felt like once we started practicing that we had the ingredients for something special to happen. This team has come together, overcome some adversity, but they have never quit. With just one game to go, I know they won't now, Cox said.