With an 18-7 record and No. 5 ranking in the latest NCAA Southeast Region rankings, the Columbus State women's basketball team in firmly entrenched on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Starting today, the Lady Cougars look to play their way off of the bubble and into the NCAAs as they open Peach Belt Conference tournament play against Flagler (12-14) at 5 p.m. at the Lumpkin Center.
"We talked about (the NCAA tournament) after our last regular-season game (a March 1 loss at Clayton State)," Columbus State coach Jonathan Norton said. "We talked about how for good teams, there are four phases to the season: the non-conference schedule, the conference schedule, the conference tournament and the NCAA tournament. I told them we were now 0-0 in Phase 3 and if we win (against Flagler), we should get into the NCAA tournament. Since then, we've been focused totally on Flagler."
Columbus State comes into the tournament having lost its last two games, but both losses were on the road to tough foes in No. 23 North Georgia (21-5) and Clayton State (21-5), which is just outside the top 25.
"I felt like in the last week, we've played two tough teams on the road, and it showed that we've been on the road a lot lately," said Norton, whose team played five of its final six regular-season games away. "We had plenty of chances to win at North Georgia and couldn't make the one shot we needed and we were only down by one point at Clayton State with five minutes to go and we ran out of gas. We're playing OK right now. It's not as well as I might like, but I think the couple of days' rest we gave them will go a long ways toward getting them back to playing at a high level."
Prior to dropping its last two games, Columbus State had won nine of its previous 10 and the Lady Cougars are 9-2 at the Lumpkin Center this season. Meanwhile, Flagler played its way into the tournament by winning its last three straight regular-season games. Prior to that hot streak, the Saints had dropped four straight.
When the teams met in the regular season, back on Jan. 20 at CSU, Columbus State pulled away late to earn a 79-74 victory. In that game, Flagler led for most of the first half before the Lady Cougars tied the game just before halftime. The second half was a back-and-forth affair, with 13 ties, before Tae Smith gave Columbus State the lead for good with a 3-pointer with 1:42 remaining.
"Flagler's going to be a tough opponent for us," Norton said. "(Guard Williesha Spencer) is super quick, can shoot the 3 and hit pull-up jumpers as well. We'll run three different people at her when we play man-to-man and we'll also throw some zone in there as well. (Post player Treva Mason) also has come on strong down the stretch for them and she's averaging close to a double-double over the last 10 games. We're going to have to keep her off the glass and those two are surrounded by some good spot-up shooters."
Keeping Spencer, a first-team all-conference selection who averages 21.8 points and 3.7 assists per game, under wraps is CSU's top priority if the Lady Cougars want to win, Norton said.
"On the defensive end of the floor, we're going to have to contain (Spencer)," Norton said. "We can't let her run wild. We have to keep her under her average. We also need to win the rebounding battle and keep them from shooting any open 3-pointers. Offensively, we have to protect the ball and get quality shots. We also have to be more aggressive offensively as a team and get those second and third shots."