Junior Celestra Warren is Limestone’s leading scorer heading into today’s NCAA Division II Southeast Regional game against Clayton State. (Special Photo: Stacey Wylie)
IF YOU GO
Who: Limestone vs. Clayton State
What: NCAA Division II Southeast Regional Tournament
When, where: Today at 2:30 p.m. at Shuford Memorial Gymnasium in Hickory, N.C.
Records, seeding: Limeston is 24-5 and seeded No. 7; Clayton State is 22-6 and No. 2 seed.
Winner plays: Belmont Abbey vs. Wingate winner Saturday at 4 p.m.
MORROW — Clayton State coach Dennis Cox was a little perplexed when he saw the NCAA Div. II Southeast Regional bracket.
As expected, his team earned the No. 2 seed for the three-day tournament, but he was more surprised to see that his team would meet Limestone in the opening round. The Saints are one of the hottest teams in the regional, and could only garner a No. 7 seed heading to today’s 2:30 p.m. tipoff in Hickory, N.C.
“They are a very hot team,” Clayton State coach Dennis Cox said. “We are very familiar with them and likewise for them. This time of year you don’t need ways to motivate yourself. This is the lose and you are done time of year.”
Limestone enters the tournament on an 11-game winning streak, and has won 15 of its last 16 games.
“We have been playing our best basketball lately,” Saints coach Corey Fox said. “We have some good chemistry, and the kids really like playing with each other.”
This will be the second straight NCAA Tournament that the two teams have met. Last season, then top-ranked Clayton State defeated the Saints 87-65 at home in the Regional finals. With that win, the Lakers advanced to the Elite Eight in San Antonio.
Last week, Clayton State lost to rival Columbus State in the semifinals of the Peach Belt Conference Tournament. The loss snapped a 13-game winning streak by the Lakers, who are making a 10th straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
After starting the season ranked, the Lakers dropped out after sustaining an unprecedented three-game losing streak earlier this season. Despite not being ranked, Fox says Clayton State is still a dangerous team.
“We have tremendous respect for Clayton State,” Fox said. “They are very good team each year. We are familiar with each other. They have some new names and new kids, but we know we will have our hands full.”
The Saints had to replace five of its top seven players from last season. Limestone has four players averaging double figures, and is led by Celestra Warren, who is averaging 15.5 points.
Of local interest, Alicia Manning of Gwinnett County was named Most Outstanding Player of the Conference Carolinas Tournament after leading Limestone to its second tournament title in three seasons. The Mill Creek High graduate scored a game-high 16 points in the title game, a 61-41 victory over Mount Olive.
“We’re playing our best basketball right now, and we’re looking forward to making a run in the NCAA Tournament,” said Brookins, who was named the conference’s defensive player of the year before the start of the tournament. “I’m very honored to have been named MVP. I’m just glad I was able to help our team accomplish our ultimate goal of winning the conference.”
Brookins usually guards the opposing team’s best offensive player.
“She is our point guard on defense,” Fox said. “Our team really started playing well once we started to master our defensive strategy. Our defense has really been playing solid.”
Such is the same with Clayton State, which started its winning streak after the player begin to grasp Cox’s defensive concept.
Lenoir-Rhyne, the host school, secured the top overall seed after clinching a share of the South Atlantic Conference regular season title. The Bears will play eighth-seeded Armstrong Atlantic in the opening round.
North Georgia, the No. 4 seed, will take on Columbus State.
Limestone, located in Gaffney, S.C., is only a 90-minute trek from Hickory, and the school expects a large contingent of fans. However, Fox cautions that his team will not have any advantage in that category on the Lakers.
“Like most schools, we are on spring break this week,” Fox said. “I know both teams will play with plenty of energy. It is a neutral site, and the only team with an advantage is Lenior-Rhyne since it’s their home court.”