Photo by Derrick Mahone
With the help of inside players Shannon Smith (left), Kayla Mobley (center) and Shay Jackson, Clayton State now has a presence in the paint that has helped the top-ranked Lakers remaining undefeated heading into the NCAA Div. II tournament.
MORROW — Dennis Cox knew last season that something in his program had changed.
It was the fourth game of the season in the X-Trem Thanksgiving Classic, and Clayton State was involved in a game that was “sort of a blowout,” losing 63-51 to Tusculum.
It was the game that let Cox know that his ballclub wouldn’t be successful going forth by just sticking to the same old brand of basketball.
It was the game when the “bigs,” as they are called, showed up.
“We had always been a perimeter oriented team,” Cox said. “But it was at the game that we realized we weren’t that anymore. We had to take that pretty bad loss in order to see that we needed to get our post players involved more.”
To be sure, seniors Kayla Mobley, Shay Jackson and Shannon Smith didn’t just arrive out of nowhere. Mobley and Jackson are three-year veterans in Cox’s program. They were here when the Lady Lakers cut down the nets as national champs in 2011.
And while Smith wasn’t on that squad — this is her second year in the program — she wasn’t exactly playing for a scrub version of the Lady Lakers last year.
Clayton State finished 29-4, advanced to the second round of the NCAA’s Div. II National Tournament, and avenged its loss to Tusculum with a win in the postseason.
It was that team that perhaps helped Cox come up with the blueprint to what he has now — a top-ranked, unbeaten Lady Lakers squad that is poised to accomplish the same feat as the group two years ago did, albeit in a way perhaps more different than any other team Cox has coached in his nine year tenure at the school.
“We realized that we had some real, true post players,” Cox said. “Some back-to-the-basket type players that could really play well in the paint. When we saw it, it was like we were a more complete team. It gave us an ability to work the inside-outside game more with our guards.”
And what a talented group of guards, which is led by Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year Drameka Griggs. The former Jonesboro High standout leads the Lakers in scoring, averaging just a hair under 20 points per game. But Cox is quick to let you know that this is not a one-player show.
“It’s not just Drameka,” he said. “She sets the tone kind of like Teyshimia Tillman did for us two years ago. But now we’ve got the bigs down low that can real change the complexion of a game for us.”
Mobley, averaging 10.2 points per game, is the team’s second-leading scorer. But the trio of her, Jackson and Smith average a combined 26.7 points per contest. That kind of production, Mobley said, is the difference between the title team of two years ago and today’s potential championship squad.
“We’re so much different now,” Mobley said. “I feel like we’re more together because now we don’t have to count on our guards so much. We’re more of a true five-on-five team now and that gives us more options.”
And Griggs said she doesn’t mind not having to be one of those options as much anymore.
“The way our post game has developed has taken a lot of pressure off of me,” Griggs said. “While some teams think I’m their main concern, our post players can do what I do on any given night.”
Mobley, Jackson and Smith each say their development has allowed Cox to implement more high-low action in their offensive attack. Which, even when they aren’t scoring, just their threat can cause opposing defenses to collapse into the paint, leaving a Laker guard open for a three-point shot.
They’ll tell you that they’re not only similar in size but also style. All three said that they feel the other can hurt opponents both in the paint and stepping outside of it.
Jackson specifically boasted of how Smith has improved her game within the 15-foot range of the basket.
“Shannon already was great with her back to the basket,” Jackson said. “But we see how she really has improved on her jumpshot over the year. She isn’t scared to shoot it. She’s just going out being herself and playing well now.”
Smith, herself, said she is working harder to “focus on finishing around the basket” more, and calls Jackson the one who has the “sweet” touch.
But she used just one word to describe what makes all three of them dangerous.
“Versatility,” Smith said. “All of us can play back to the basket. We can also face up and shoot. We can defend. There isn’t much we can’t do.”
Cox also used the “v” word to describe them.
“They are very versatile in that we’ve got the length with Shay and Shannon and more strength and power with Kayla,” he said. “We feel like with the way that they play, we can give most teams some problems.”