Clayton State’s path to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division II women’s basketball tournament wasn’t as smooth as the top-ranked Lakers’ 32-0 record might indicate.
The week before the season even started, coach Dennis Cox lost an expected impact player when Hidaayah Williams transferred out of the program.
Clayton State regrouped and routed Delta State 68-51 in the opener. During their second game against Union, a power on the NAIA level, senior starting guard Keona Dixon tore the ACL in her left knee.
“I remember thinking, ‘Man, this might be a long year,’” said Cox, who has led the Lakers to a 96-5 record over the last three years, a mark bettered only by Baylor women’s basketball team at any level in the NCAA, according to Clayton State.
The Lakers regrouped and beat Union 66-44. They was followed by edging Newberry, 66-60. Cox was happy to be wrong.
The 2011 national champs, the Lakers will try to continue what has been a dominating season when they take on Augustana (S.D.) on Tuesday in San Antonio. The winner will play in Wednesday’s semifinals. The championship game will follow on Friday. Such a scenario seemed unlikely back in November.
“What we learned is that we were a very good half-court defensive team,” Cox said. “Our press is our trademark, but with a lot of new players and new roles, we weren’t ready to do that. We began depending on our half-court defense and getting stops.
“That’s where it turned.”
Only two other teams have come as close to the Lakers since Newberry’s six-point loss.
“We’re very excited,” said Drameka Griggs, a Jonesboro High product who was named the Peach Belt Conference player of the year after averaging 19.7 points. “It’s a challenge to accept any competition that may come.”
The Lakers are winning by an average of more than 22 points. Just Lenoir-Rhyne, which lost to CSU by four, and South Carolina-Aiken, beaten by six, have come within single digits of toppling Clayton State.
Cox would obviously like to continue to dominate the final days because, he says half-jokingly, “I’m not that good of a coach. I don’t want to have to draw up a play to win a game.”
The Lakers are prepared should a winning basket be needed, but if the team’s defense continues to dominate, that may not be a worry. The Lakers are limiting opponents to 32.7 percent shooting, including 24.7 percent 3-point attempts.
Cox’s offensive and defensive schemes are based upon what Clayton State men’s coach Gordon Gibbons has used. Cox’s team likes to press, but is now also comfortable with its half-court defense. On offense, if the team isn’t in transition, the Lakers uses a ball-screen attack to take advantage of its post players, Shacamra Jackson and Kayla Mobley, while Griggs attacks from everywhere.
Augustana (27-6) will be a tough opponent. The Vikings, paced by forward Alex Feeney’s team-leading 14.4 points per game, are outscoring opponents by almost 16 points per game, limiting them to 34.3 percent shooting.
“The key is continuing to do what we do as far as playing together, working hard and bringing pressure,” Griggs said.