Guerry Clegg commentary: Lady Cougars earn new jewelry

March 9, 2014 

Chatil Bradford wore her newest piece of jewelry -- a nylon necklace freshly harvested Sunday from the Lumpkin Center rim. It might not go with many of her outfits. But it worked beautifully with her Columbus State uniform.

Bradford might not remove it for a while, except to share it with her teammates.

It's made of inexpensive material, but she and fellow seniors Asha Alexander and Tae Smith gave everything they had to earn it.

Now, it's priceless.

"I'm going to wear it and tell everybody, 'Yeah, we're conference champions,' " Bradford said.

Peach Belt Conference tournament champions, to be exact. Moments earlier, Bradford and her Lady Cougar teammates had survived a stressful first half to beat Georgia College 60-49.

Immediately following the championship game, the all-tournament team was announced with Bradford winning MVP honors for scoring 15 of her 17 points in the decisive second half.

Shortly afterward, the net cutting ceremony began. CSU athletic director Jay Sparks stood symbolically and purposefully at a distance and watched. One by one, the players hiked the ladders under the goals, first on the north end of the arena, then the other.

Sparks built the women's basketball from the ground up, starting as a part-time coach with hardly any resources, and building CSU into a Division II women's power.

"Besides achieving the feat to get the championship ring, there's not a better feeling than cutting down the nets," Sparks said.

"You don't think about it when the season starts. You think about winning the regular season. You think about winning the conference tournament. You think about going to the Regionals. And you think about winning the Regionals. But cutting down the nets is the culmination of winning a championship."

Bradford agreed. After all, it was one of those two nets, not her MVP award, that she took with her into the interview room.

"Oh, yes. Cutting down our OWN nets in our OWN gym," she said, her smile conveying the rest of her thoughts without the need for words. "I've never even seen the top of the rim."

Bradford and Alexander pointed out that they had never even seen the floor on a championship Sunday. Their first three Peach Belt tournaments ended with first-round losses, the last two coming at home.

"I can finally say we've done something since we've been here," Bradford said. "Our names will forever go down as the 2014 Peach Belt tournament champions."

It doesn't end here. Up next is the Southeast Regional tournament, which begins Friday. This will be their first trip to the NCAA tournament since Jonathan Norton replaced Sparks as head coach five years ago.

The program has treaded water during the transition -- four winning seasons and 64-45 overall going into this season. Respectable, for sure. But a far cry from the days of back-to-back Elite Eight appearances.

But Sparks' confidence in Norton, his top assistant during those great seasons, has never wavered.

Norton had the double difficulty of having to replace a legend, who just happened to be his boss, during a time of financial cutbacks. The Board of Regents eliminated out-of-state tuition exemptions for scholarship athletes. So Norton had to focus on in-state players -- and so did his competition. Eight of the 14 Peach Belt members are Georgia schools. They also recruit against West Georgia, Georgia State, Georgia Southern and Valdosta State.

"Now, it's his program and we'll just sit back and watch it all happen," Sparks said.

Norton tried to redirect all the credit to his players, those three seniors in particular.

"Those seniors deserve this," Norton said. "They worked hard to make this season special. They showed a lot of leadership. They showed a lot of heart. They earned the right to cut those nets down."

Very true. But anyone who knows Norton has to be happy for him. He's always positive, always pleasant.

"I'm just happy that it happened here at Columbus State, my alma mater, where Coach Sparks and Coach (Herbert) Greene gave me my start in coaching," Norton said. "Those are my mentors. I'm just glad we have been able to get this program back to the top of the conference."

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

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