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Clayton State brings mixed emotions to title chase

Photo by Derrick Mahone
Clayton State coach Dennis Cox goes over the top-ranked Lakers scouting report on opening round opponent Mount Olive during Tuesday’s practice as the team prepares for the state of the NCAA Div. II tournament later this week.

Photo by Derrick Mahone Clayton State coach Dennis Cox goes over the top-ranked Lakers scouting report on opening round opponent Mount Olive during Tuesday’s practice as the team prepares for the state of the NCAA Div. II tournament later this week.

MORROW — Fresh off the euphoria that came from winning her first conference tournament championship, Kayla Mobley said she’s ready to move on.

NCAA Div. II Southeast Regional

Who: Clayton State vs. Mount Olive

Records, seeding and rankings: Clayton State is 29-0, seeded No. 1 and ranked No. 1 in the country; Mount Olive is 18-11, seeded No. 8 and unranked.

When, where: Friday, Athletics and Fitness Center in Morrow

Time: 6 p.m.

Tickets: $8 per session; students with I.D. $3 and children under 2 free.

“It’s a great feeling, first time winning the conference title since I’ve been here,” Mobley said. “But we know we still have a long way to go. We’ve got regional now and the national tourney. It’s time for us to just take one game at a time.”

And that first game for top-seeded Clayton State is against No. 8 seed Mount Olive on Friday at 6 p.m.

The Trojans are 18-11, and despite ending their regular season on a three-game losing streak, they turned it up in time to sweep through the Conference Carolinas tournament and earn the automatic bid into the national tournament.

The Lady Lakers, on the other hand, have had no such losing spells. A few close games here and there, but a perfect 29-0 record, you might expect a little hubris to find its way to the Clayton State psyche.

But it hasn’t.

Mount Olive definitely has the attention of the top-ranked Div. II team in the nation.

“There’s been pressure for us since the beginning, but now it’s win or go home for us,” Mobley said. “People around us are talking about making it to San Antonio and all that, but all we can think about is we’ve got this first game and we have to win it.”

In other words, 29-0 doesn’t matter for the Lady Lakers any more.

“It’s a new season now,” said senior power forward Shay Jackson. “Everybody is 0-0 right now. Last year at this time, we were coming off a loss in the conference tournament. So we know what it feels like to lose in the postseason. And that ain’t what we want.”

The Lady Lakers should have a little extra incentive to play well — namely a home court advantage, because Clayton State is hosting all of Southeast Regional games.

The Lakers will have to win three games at home in order to advance to the Elite Eight, which is in San Antonio.

“I like the idea that we’re going to be able to host the regional here,” Mobley said. “The first year we won the national title, we hosted as well. So we’re really looking forward to having the homecourt behind us.”

As for point guard Drameka Griggs, home or away, she knows that the pressure to win will keep mounting, the deeper they get in the bracket. The reigning Peach Belt Conference player of the year said she’s sure teams will be more interested in knocking the Lakers off than being intimidated by them or their surroundings.

“Each game you win, the target becomes bigger,” Griggs said. “But that motivates you. Because you’re thinking, ‘who wouldn’t want to come in here and upset us?’”

Pressure or not, Clayton State coach Dennis Cox said his goal is to make this time around a little more pleasurable. The last time his Lakers were in this favored position, they won it all. But sometimes, he admits, the moment was a lot to handle.

“I am trying to enjoy this more,” Cox said. “It helps to have been through it before. The last time we were in this position there was a lot of anxiety and we were just trying to get to an end point. It was all kind of a blur. So yes, I know I am definitely trying to enjoy this.”