Clayton State guard Drameka Griggs (No. 12), who was recently named the Peach Belt Conference’s top player, will lead the Lakers into the conference tournament this week.
MORROW — National championships. No. 1 rankings. Undefeated regular season.
Clayton State women vs. Armstrong Atlantic State
What: Peach Belt Conference Tournament
When, where: Thursday, 5 p.m. at Columbus State University
Seeding, records: Clayton is 26-0 and the top seed; Armstrong is 13-13 and the No. 4 seed.
Last meeting: Clayton State won 71-54 on Jan. 3
What’s next: Winner advances to semifinals on Saturday at 4 p.m. to face the Columbus State-USC Aiken winner.
Scouting report: Top-ranked Clayton State enters the conference tournament undefeated for the second time in three seasons. The Lakers will be looking for their fourth tournament title since 2005. Armstrong has won five straight and six of its last seven games to end the regular season.
Clayton State’s Drameka Griggs has been there and done all of that before — namely during the 2010-11 season, en route to helping the school win its first national title.
This year she wants something new.
“Many people may not realize it, but I’ve never won a conference tournament before,” Griggs said. “I’ve won a region title and a national championship back in 2011. We won a regular season (conference) title. But not the tournament.”
In fact, it’s been almost four years since the Lakers, consistently one of the top teams in the nation on the NCAA’s Div. II level for the last several years, have won a Peach Belt Conference tournament.
Clayton State coach Dennis Cox said that has been far too long.
“You’re talking about the 2009-2010 year since we’ve done it,” Cox said. “That’s a long time for a program that has won the regular season six of the last nine years. That’s part of our motivation.”
The other part of it, according to Cox, lies in the fact that Clayton State is unbeaten as it sits atop the USA TODAY CNN/ESPN Coaches poll — just like it was heading into the conference tournament the year the Lakers won it all.
Clayton State dropped a 73-72 loss to USC-Aiken that year in the PBC championship game, despite ultimately cutting down the nets at the end of the 2011 Final Four in St. Joseph, Mo.
Four players from that bunch have become leaders on this season’s team. Including Griggs, who said she isn’t worried about the team looking past Thursday’s opening round game against Armstrong Atlantic State.
“We honestly want to win the conference championship just as bad as we want to win the national championship,” Griggs said.
Cox backed up his star player’s sentiment.
“I know it sounds like a cliché, but we really are just trying to focus on Armstrong which is our next opponent,” Cox said. “In 2011, we won the national title but didn’t even win our conference. And last year’s conference title loss in the tourney final still stings.”
Forward Kayla Mobley, center Shay Jackson, guard Keona Dixon and Griggs are the only four players to have tasted both of those conference tourney defeats. But the Lakers (26-0) aren’t just being spurred along by a desire to avenge last season’s tournament loss. They also want to keep that zero in the loss column.
“We want to win every game,” said. “That’s something we’ve never done. Not even in 2011. I think only four teams have gone through the season with just one loss, and we were one of them. That’s why every game is motivation for us. We want to go the entire season without a loss.”
To do that, the Lakers will have to get by a streaking Armstrong team that has the conference’s second-longest winning streak at five games. Three of those have been on the road, including a 53-49 upset win at USC Aiken on Feb. 23.
Despite Armstrong ’s (13-13) place near the bottom of the conference, Cox said the Pirates have enough to present a scary challenge for a team trying to stay perfect.
“ They’re a very dangerous team for us to play,” Cox said. “They match up with us well. They’re very athletic. They play an attacking style, and they have motivation to win. They’re one of a couple of teams that need to keep winning in order to keep playing. Even if we were to lose it wouldn’t be the end of our season.”
Cox brings what he said may be Clayton State’s most decorated team in school history as Griggs, Mobley and Jackson were all named to the Peach Belt’s All-Conference team.
Griggs, a Jonesboro High graduate, said her personal accomplishments are just a reflection of the type of teammates she has around her.
“It’s easy for me to take recognition for those things,” Griggs said. “But my teammates make it happen. Without them I’m nothing. They get me open. They play good “D” and they do all the small things. When I’m down, or having an off game, they pick me up.”
The Lakers defeated Armstrong 71-54 on Jan. 3 in the teams’ only matchup this season, but Griggs said she is expecting to see a different kind of team this time around.
“It’s the postseason now,” she said. “So it’s a new intensity and a new level. It’s pretty much like we’re beginning a new season.”