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Clayton State heads to Elite Eight with win

Special Photo
Clayton State center Shay Jackson looks to score in the paint during the Lakers' 87-65 win over Limestone in the NCAA Div. II Southeast Regional on Tuesday. With the win, Clayton State advances to next week's Elite Eight in San Antonio, Texas.

Special Photo Clayton State center Shay Jackson looks to score in the paint during the Lakers' 87-65 win over Limestone in the NCAA Div. II Southeast Regional on Tuesday. With the win, Clayton State advances to next week's Elite Eight in San Antonio, Texas.

MORROW – San Antonio, here they come.

Top-ranked Clayton State punched its ticket to the NCAA Div. II’s Elite Eight by defeating No. 8 Limestone 87-65 in the NCAA Southeast Regional Tournament’s championship game Monday at the Athletics and Fitness Center.

Drameka Griggs did her usual damage, scoring a team-high 23 points and snagging five steals before getting slowed a bit by an injury late in the first half.

But the story Monday night was the continuing emergence of Clayton State’s post players – namely power forward Kayla Mobley. The senior registered a double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds on her way to being named the Southeast Regional Tournament’s MVP.

“Kayla Mobley was just unbelievable in this tournament,” said coach Dennis Cox who is making his ninth straight NCAA tournament appearance. “We keep asking her, and it seems like she just gets every rebound for us. She’s got great hands, and everything that comes near her, she grabs it.”

Mobley, along with Shay Jackson and her 16 points and seven boards were the key to Clayton State advancing to play in its second Elite Eight in three years. The last time the Lakers got this far, they were on their way to winning the school’s first ever national championship.

For Jackson, it was more her defense than just her scoring that gave Cox reason to smile.

“We don’t win that game tonight if (Shay) doesn’t do her best job on their wing player Maria Young,” Cox said. “I think Young was the best wing player out there. But Shacamra Jackson was named the Peach Belt defensive player of the year, and she showed it tonight.”

Johnson held Young to a paltry 1-for-8 shooting from the field. The Saints’ guard had just five points on the night.

The win marked the sixth straight dominating performance for Clayton State in the postseason. The Lakers have won each game convincingly, with an average margin of victory near 24 points per game. But Cox stopped short of saying that his team had completely peaked.

“If you would’ve asked me that after Saturday, I would’ve said, ‘yes we are peaking at the right time,’” he said. “But for whatever reason we didn’t play our best ball tonight. The game was much closer than the score indicated.”

Indeed, when Limestone looks back at this one, it will undoubtedly spot some shots – particularly layups – that they wish they could have back. A largely perimeter oriented team, the Saints missed their first 13 three point attempts. Yet they were still only down 47-41 just eight minutes into the second half, thanks to clutch shots by guard Tia Williams who poured in a game-high 25 points.

The early second half hot streak helped chop Clayton State’s 36-24 halftime lead in half. But the six point deficit in the opening moments of the second half would be the closest they would get.

Mobley made sure of it when, after Limestone’s second consecutive three pointers, she went to work, grabbing a rebound and a putback, and scoring on a nifty move in the paint to push the Lakers lead back into double digits at 51-41.

Later, Williams would drain another 3-pointer for Limestone to whittle it back to a seven point lead, but Griggs and Jackson helped spur an 11-0 run that essentially put the game away.

After the first ever meeting between the two schools Limestone coach Corey Fox said he came away impressed with the No. 1 team in the nation – especially the tourney’s MVP.

“We battled and battled against pressure tonight,” Cox said. “Tia Williams was unbelievable and really kind of willed us back into that game. But Clayton is a heck of a ballclub. Coach Cox does a great job on defense. And Mobley’s a great, great player. We weren’t surprised at what she could do. We saw her do it against (USC-Aiken).”

In a game where Clayton State never trailed, Limestone made it tough for the Lakers to truly settle in a groove – especially in the first half. After racing out to an 11-4 lead, Williams and point guard Stephanie Hayes took turns scoring on a 6-0 run that helped the Saints cut the lead to one.

Griggs knocked down a jumper and Williams answered with a pair of free throws, making the score 13-12, Lakers on top with 12:37 left in the half. Limestone would then go the next 8:05 without a score, while Clayton State went on a 12-0 run, extending its lead to 25-13 with 4:32 left before halftime.

The victory lifted Clayton State to a perfect 32-0, while Limestone, who won its first ever national tournament games this season, ended at 27-5.

North Clayton moves on to face Augustana (S.D.) Tuesday in San Antonio. Augustana edged Emporia State 75-74 to qualify for the Elite Eight.