Still caught up in the excitement of winning a championship, Chatil Bradford couldn’t remember what year it was.
The verbal faux pas was the only mistake Columbus State’s senior forward made in Sunday’s Peach Belt Conference championship game. Bradford’s 3-point marksmanship in the second half keyed a come-from-behind victory for Columbus State, as it beat Georgia College 60-49 to capture the school's first conference tournament crown since 2001.
After each of the Lady Cougars’ (21-7) earlier tournament victories this week, Bradford refused to say the team had accomplished anything. It was championship or bust.
Sunday’s win let her breathe easy — even if she couldn’t recall certain numerical details.
“Our names will forever go down in history as the 2000, what, 12?” she asked before teammate Asha Alexander and coach Jonathan Norton helped out. “OK, 2014 Peach Belt Conference champions.”
The rest of her math was right, though, including what Norton dubbed the “Chatil Bradford Theory of 10,” which the senior forward formulated earlier this season. The equation involves four factors: Bradford, Alexander and Tae Smith each scoring 10 or more points along with Carrie Washington grabbing 10-plus rebounds.
“And that happened tonight in a big game for us,” said Norton, as Alexander had a game-high 19 points, Bradford was close behind with 17 and Smith put in 14 while Washington pulled down 12 rebounds.
More than just giving them their first tournament title in 13 years, it also guaranteed the Lady Cougars a spot in the NCAA Division II tournament. The Lady Cougars will be the fifth seed in the Southeast Regional, which will be hosted by No. 1 seed Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickey, N.C., and will play No. 4 North Georgia in the first round on Friday. Lenoir-Rhyne hosts Armstrong Atlantic in the first round. The other first-round game will be No. 3 Wingate vs. No. 6 Belmont Abbey and No. 2 Clayton State vs. No. Limestone.
But the only thing still up in the air for Columbus State at this point is where it will gather to watch the announcement.
It could be the president’s club inside the Lumpkin Center. Or it could be a local restaurant.
All that matters is that it has a screen big enough for everyone to see it when the words “Columbus State” crawl across the screen.
“Tonight we’ll get a good meal in us I hope,” Norton said. “We will meet somewhere to see the webcast just to make sure it’s a fun, exciting time so they can see their name called out in the national tournament.”
A spot in the NCAA tournament was all but certain for the Lady Cougars just by making it to the league title game. But to defeat Georgia College (18-11) for the third time in as many meetings this season, Columbus State would have to stage a second half comeback.
Down 24-19 at halftime, Norton challenged his team — and Bradford specifically — to take what the defense gave them.
With the Bobcats clogging the lane to prevent penetration, that meant the Lady Cougars would have to take to the perimeter.
It paid off in a big way.
Trailing 28-23 with 17 minutes remaining, Bradford hit her first 3-pointer to cut the deficit to two points. They didn’t stop dropping from there. Bradford made two more from behind the arc in the next three minutes to give the Lady Cougars a 32-31 lead with 14:32 to go. Then her teammates got in on the action — Smith made a 3-pointer of her own and Kayla Richards converted on a pair herself.
After Richards’ second trey at the 4:32 mark, Columbus State was up 43-40. Riding the momentum of their six consecutive 3-pointers, the Lady Cougars cruised from there, outscoring the Bobcats 17-9 in the final four minutes.
The talk of the postgame centered on the 3-point barrage.
Georgia College coach Maurice Smith said his team did everything it could, switching between man-to-man and multiple zone looks in an attempt to slow it down.
“One thing about our zone especially is that we leave the perimeter susceptible to allowing some of those 3-point shooters to go off,” he said. “I think we just lost sight of our man at times and our defensive principles those times just slipped."
Norton said he couldn’t recall seeing anything like it during his five-year tenure as coach. And he refrained from taking any credit for it. With the Lady Cougars in a rut offensively to open the second half, Norton was rifling through his playbook — joking that his players always remind him how cumbersome it is — to try to find something to shake them out of their doldrums.
The solution wasn’t any kind of coaching epiphany.
It was simply turning to the hot hand of Bradford.
“My job as a coach is that once someone makes one, we’ve got to give her a chance to make two, three and four in a row,” he said. “So that’s what we were doing. When Chatil made one, because they were packed in so much, we wanted to run a similar play and get a similar look if they’re going to stand back and let her shoot it.”
Admittedly a “streaky” 3-point shooter, Bradford didn’t take it as a sign of disrespect that she was continually left alone behind the arc.
“I (only) shoot the three if I just feel like I’m wide open or we just have to,” she said. “But I noticed that I was turning it over every time I drove the ball because they were so packed in there, so I had to go with something else. If they’re going to give it me, I have to shoot it.”
The victory lifted a burden of sorts for Columbus State.
Coming into this year, the senior class had never won a conference tournament game, becoming one-and-done victims each of the last three seasons. The Lady Cougars were also attempting to overcome their tortured history in the conference title contest. They had lost their last three appearances in the championship game and were just 2-6 overall.
So to cut down the nets — on their home court, no less — meant the world to Bradford.
“We’ve not been able to even see what this Sunday looks like — not even Saturday,” she said, referencing Columbus State’s frustrating results in the past three editions of the PBC tournament. “ So we might as well just go all the way. What do we have to lose? Nothing. To win here and make our coaches proud, our parents proud, it makes these four years worth it.”