Clayton State coach Dennis Cox has his women’s team with an 18-0 record heading into Thursday’s Peach Belt Conference game against Georgia College.
By Gabriel Stovall
MORROW — Dennis Cox didn’t expect this.
Clayton State is ranked No. 3 in the latest USA TODAY/ESPN Divison II Women’s College Basketball Top 25 poll. But that isn’t a surprise.
The Lady Lakers are just 1 1/2 seasons removed from a national championship. It’s not a stretch to have a little leftover talent in stock.
Cox’s bunch is sitting at the top of the Peach Belt Conference. No shock there either. Clayton State is making a bid for its fourth straight regular season Peach Belt crown.
But the zero in the loss column? That’s another story.
Clayton State (18-0, 11-0) has gotten off to its fastest start since winning its first 29 games of that national title season. The Lady Lakers streak ended that year when South Carolina-Aiken defeated them in the semifinals of the Peach Belt conference tournament.
And ironically, it was a recent victory against that same nationally-ranked squad from Aiken that caused Cox’s eyebrows to raise and acknowledge he may have something special.
“Well, I’ll tell you going in, this group has definitely exceeded my expectations,” Cox said. “It wasn’t until that game at Aiken, and then a couple of dominating performances since that I said, ‘Wow. Maybe we’ve got something here.’ We knew before the season we had a strong core of players coming back, but we felt like we didn’t do what we should have done in recruiting to make another title run. ”
What Clayton State did have was three players returning from that 2011 title team, including point guard and former Jonesboro High standout Drameka Griggs and post players Shay Jackson and Kayla Mobley. Mobley redshirted in that 2011 season.
But with the loss of two All-Americans in Brittany Hall and Tanisha Woodard from last season, what the Lakers did not have was star power. A go-to player.
Or so they thought.
“I didn’t think we would be where we are right now,” Griggs said. “Honestly, I didn’t feel like we’d be good at all.”
But Griggs is a huge reason why they are. The diminutive senior leads the team in scoring, tallying 18.5 points and 3.5 assists and 3.8 steals per game. Mobley’s presence in the paint has been just as vital to Clayton State’s surge. The 6-foot-1 center is averaging 10.1 points per contest along with a team-best 7.7 rebounds a game to boot.
Add to the equation the return of guard Keona Dixon, who last Saturday at North Georgia played in just her third game back from suffering a complete tear of her ACL during the second game of the season. Operating at just 80 percent, Dixon erupted for 23 points in the North Georgia game.
It’s just a sign of the toughness this squad has had, even if the talent Clayton State has been accustomed to is not there.
“That (toughness) is the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Cox said.
What the Lakers are doing is continuing to build success on top of success.
With Cox at the helm, the Lady Lakers have fashioned themselves into one of the premier Division II programs in women’s college basketball. Much of that success has come because of a turnover- and fast break-producing full court pressure defense that Griggs said has become Clayton State’s signature.
But this season, though the winning results are similar, the method in achieving them has been a bit different.
“My first two years we relied heavily on our press,” Griggs said. “Our press has defined who we are as a team, but not to rely on it solely now is very, very different for us. We are leaning more on our half court game now.”
The same goes on offense. Mobley said the Lakers’ increased half court emphasis has not only been good for defense, but it has also been a boon for the paint dwellers.
“We have a lot of different talent that is able to stay true to their positions,” Mobley said. “In the past, we’ve really had a more guard oriented system, but now the post players are more involved and it gives the offense more options.”
Despite the changes in strategy, two things that remain unaltered is the team’s tenacity and expectations for winning – which is one reason why senior Shannon Smith isn’t completely taken aback by the Lakers’ success.
“It’s really not surprising,” said Smith, a senior forward averaging 8.7 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. “We put in the work, and these are the results you’re going to get.”
Now all of a sudden, Clayton State has gone from being a potentially good team to one that could possibly go undefeated.
And while Cox’s coachspeak side tries to err on the side of caution, his competitive side won’t shy away from what an undefeated season could mean for his bunch.
“We honestly didn’t talk about going undefeated this year,” he said. “It was something we talked about last season because we had a title to defend. When you’ve had the kind of success we’ve had, it gets harder every year for a team to do something it has never done. Going undefeated was the next thing for us. It’s a lofty goal. It’s a lot harder than you’d think and a lot easier said than done.”
As for the players, Mobley said the team tries to downplay the perfect season talk.
“We try not to think about it,” Mobley said. “One game at a time. One team and one person at a time. We’ve been successful, but we have to continue to get better.”
Cox won’t argue.
“You always worry about peaking too soon,” Cox said. “I want us to be playing better in March than we are now.”