Carrie Washington didn’t say a single word during Columbus State’s postgame interview session Saturday night.
But she didn't need to. She had already let her game do the talking, after all.
The junior forward tied a Peach Belt Conference tournament record with 14 defensive rebounds — part of her 20 total rebounds — to go along with 11 points. Thanks in large part to Washington’s efforts, Columbus State knocked off top-seeded Clayton State 63-58 in the Lumpkin Center, putting the Lady Cougars into the conference title game for the first time since 2007.
While Washington didn’t feel the need to talk, others were more than happy to speak on her behalf.
“I swear she’s the best rebounder I’ve seen in the PBC,” said Chatil Braford, who referenced Washington’s game against Georgia Southwestern in January, when she pulled down a school-record 27 rebounds.
“She doesn’t really care about the stats. She knows her job is to rebound and defend and she just wants to win games,” Lady Cougars coach Jonathan Norton said of Washington. “It was huge for us. The only two stats that really matter against Clayton State and that you constantly harp on is not turning the ball over so you get a good shot and then keeping them off the offensive glass.”
But Washington wasn’t the only player with a standout performance for Columbus State (20-7). Bradford (13 points, 11 rebounds) joined Washington in recording a double-double while Tae Smith scored a game-high 24 points. Smith’s point total came as no surprise; in the team’s last regular season game, which also came against Clayton State, she poured in a career-high 32 points.
This time, Smith’s labors weren’t for naught.
Saturday marked the first time since Feb. 2, 2010, the Lady Cougars vanquished the Lakers (22-6). Since then, Columbus State had come up short nine times.
None of that mattered to Norton in the moments after Saturday’s win, though.
“I just couldn’t be more proud of a group of young ladies,” he said. “They do everything we ask them to do on and off the court. They’re first class and they’ve deserved this. They worked hard and they earned it.”
It wasn’t a game that will be remembered fondly by offensive enthusiasts. Columbus State made just 29.4 percent (20-for-68) of its field goal attempts. Clayton State didn't fare much better, converting only 31 percent (22-for-71) of its shots.
The difference was at the free throw line.
While the Lakers were more effective (11-for-15; 73.3 percent), the Lady Cougars beat them in bulk (19-for-29; 65.5 percent).
“Sometimes it’s better to give that basket up than to reach in and foul,” Clayton State coach Dennis Cox said. “So we weren’t disciplined in that regard today and it put us in some foul trouble.”
Smith led the way for the Lady Cougars in the first 20 minutes, scoring eight points. And she saved her best shot for last. With Columbus State down 22-19 and less than 10 seconds remaining in the first half, Smith set up behind the 3-point line and let it go.
It found the bottom of the net to send the teams into the locker room knotted at 22-all.
Leveling the score with the Lakers heading into halftime was a boost for his team, Norton said, especially since they couldn’t do so in the two previous meetings this season.
“You look up and both teams are in the 20s and you’re saying, ‘I hope the fans don’t leave because we’re knocking all the orange off the rim,’” Norton said. “But Tae making that three — we’re tied. Obviosuly we weren’t tied at halftime of either one of the (earlier) games with them, so you go (into the locker room saying), ‘Golly,’ with your head down. But now we’re tied and we make a shot and we got some momentum.”
With its pair of victories this week, the Lady Cougars are back on the upswing, putting their two-game losing streak to close the regular season behind them.
But to capture their first conference crown since 2001, they’ll need to get past Georgia College. Though Columbus State won both regular season matchups — 79-55 and 65-54, respectively — all Norton focused on was Georgia College’s play this week. The Bobcats have scored 83 points in both of their victories in the tournament, winning by an average of 16.5 points per game.
Norton was well-aware of the test awaiting his team Sunday.
“The biggest challenge for us is to go get some rest,” he said. “I’m going to be on our trainer’s rear end to get them loosened back up for tomorrow. I’m sure Georgia College is a little tired, too. I don’t think they’re extremely deep. We know we can play and beat them, but we’re going to have to come out and shoot the ball better.”
Sunday is a zero-sum game for Bradford.
Lose, and everything else the Lady Cougars have accomplished this season would mean little.
“This was just (another) steppingstone,” she said of Saturday’s victory. “We’ve had goals all year and beating Clayton State was definitely first on the list. The next one was (cutting) the nets down here. I’ll take nothing else.”