Guerry Clegg commentary: Columbus State basketball teams looking to rejoin conference elite

March 4, 2014 

Whenever Robert Moore and Jonathan Norton bring recruits into the Lumpkin Center, one of their common selling points is Columbus State's heritage as Peach Belt Conference basketball icons.

From 1992 through 2005, the men's team won three regular season championships, six tournament titles and was tournament runner-up three times.

"They started calling the tournament the Herbert Greene Invitational," said Moore, one of Greene's assistants for many of those seasons.

The women were nearly as dominant under Jay Sparks. From 1994 through '07, the Lady Cougars won four regular season championships, two tournament titles and finished second six times.

Columbus State hosts the Peach Belt tournament for the third consecutive year beginning Thursday, and both teams are trying to reclaim their standing among the conference elite.

The men have farther to go. They finished 8-11 in conference play for the second straight year. They claimed the final spot in the West Division by default. Young Harris played this season as a provisional member of the Peach Belt. Its games counted in the standings, but Young Harris was not eligible for the tournament.

So you might think a team given new life would grasp the sense of urgency. But that may not be the case. The Cougars were working a five-on-five half-court scrimmage Tuesday, when Moore stopped practice and gave his team two choices. Either ramp up the intensity or go home.

After all, why waste time? The Cougars' season will end with the next loss. They play South Carolina-Aiken, which finished 18-1 in conference play, in the first round Friday. If they play with anything less than maximum effort, they will get embarrassed on their home floor. The Cougars lost to Aiken 82-70 in the regular season.

So was this a motivational ploy or Moore's frustration that his team has failed to sense the urgency or understand the opportunity at hand?

"A little bit of both," Moore said. "Athletically, we can beat anybody. Mentally, anybody can beat us."

What the players need to understand is that they're not just playing to keep this season alive but for next season as well. The Cougars have only two seniors -- part-time starters Brandon Dawson and Nick Turner. But no one is assured of anything next season.

Little things matter. Every possession on both ends of the floor have to be contested.

"It's been hard for me to get this group to understand it," Moore said.

The tournament, Moore said, presents a chance to start anew.

"This is a big opportunity for us," he said. "Can we win with this group?"

Norton's Lady Cougars have proved they can win. They finished the regular season 13-6 in the Peach Belt and are 18-7 overall. They might have already secured a spot in the NCAA regional tournament. A win Thursday over Flagler would virtually assure it.

"This is your last chance," Norton said. "Leave your mark. I think we're really close. This year has been a big step for us."

If any team is to pull an upset and win the tournament, the Lady Cougars are a prime candidate. They have three seniors who made All-Peach Belt. Chatil Bradford made second team, while Asha Alexander and Tae Smith each made third team.

"Crazy things happen in tournaments," said Norton, who, like Moore, was an assistant during those glory days. "If you can win that first one, anything can happen."

Just like the good ol' days.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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