Photo by Heather Middleton
Fans welcome home National Champs
By Doug Gorman
(Editor's Note: It was originally reported that Clayton State was the first women's team to win a national title from Georgia. We have since learned that Berry College won the AIAW Small College national title in 1976. It was not our intention to overlook Berry's accomplishment.)
Less than 24 hours after winning the NCAA Division II Championship with a 69-50 victory over Michigan Tech, the Clayton State women's basketball team return home from St. Joseph Mo to a heroes' welcome.
Led into the Morrow campus by police cars complete with flashing lights and sirens, the Lakers were greeted outside the Athletic and Fitness Center by hundreds of cheering fans who braved some rainy weather so they could be a part of history.
The Lakers completed their season with a 35-1 record. They are the first women's basketball team from Georgia to win a NCAA National Title at any level.
Using a dominating pressing defensive, the Lakers average margin of victory this season was more than 20 points.
Senior Teshymia Tillman was the Lakers' leading scorer this year, finishing in double figures with 14.9 points per game.
She leaves Clayton State scoring more than 1,000 points in just two years, but also with a memory she will take with her for a lifetime.
"Everybody has goals they want to accomplish," she said. "It was great to come away with a national title because this was one of our goals. I hopes this team continues to set goals."
Clayton State senior Rico Lee watched Clayton State triumph over Michigan Tech live and in person.
Lee and six of his friend made the trip to St. Joseph by car and then turned around and headed home right after the game.
The sleepy Laker fans made it back to campus just a few hours ahead of the team, who had the luxury of flying home Saturday morning.
"It was well worth it," said Lee. "This is a once in a lifetime experience. This makes my senior year even more special."
Clayton State's only defeat this season was to USC Aiken, in a 73-72 one-point overtime loss in the Peach Belt Conference Tournament.
Head Coach Dennis Cox, who is in his seventh year at Clayton State , was overwhelmed by the turnout Saturday.
"This outpouring is the peak of it," he said. "It's all I can do to keep myself composed. Those of you who were here cheering, I think we could hear you all the way out there. As a coach, it is what you dream off. To end your season with a win is great, because there is only one team who ends their season with a win, and that was us."
Athletic Director Mason Barfield has been at CSU since the school started women's basketball back in 1991, and he knows that there are so many people that have helped make this happen.
"I just hope people understand how many people were involved in winning a national title," Barfield said. "It's more than just the 18 people we took out there, and the 18 people we brought back."
Sophomore Drameka Griggs transferred into Clayton State at the beginning of the year after starting her career at Division I Jacksonville. The Jonesboro graduate is glad she found her way home to be a part of the school's first title.
Griggs came off the bench most of the season for CSU, and averaged just over 10 points per game.
"Reality hasn't set in just yet, but this is a blessing," Griggs said. "They say the grass is always greener on the other side, so I am just so blessed to be here. I just couldn't be more excited for all the support and all the fans who came out here. today"
Cox will now start gearing up to defend his title, but not before getting a little sleep and enjoying the accomplishment.
"Gradually it's starting to sink in," Cox said. "It' s just been an emotional ride. Right now, we are operating on very little sleep. I don't think I sleep too much before the game, I think the players did, they sure looked like they did as well as they played."
After losing against USC Aiken, the Lakers closed out the year with six wins in a row en route to their national title.