Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: Lady Cougars ready to take next step

Pumped up with penicillin, Tamiflu and a steroid shot, Jonathan Norton oversaw practice the last two days from a safe distance. The flu had already run through several members of the Columbus State Lady Cougars. Norton woke up Thursday morning as the latest victim. So Friday, Norton made the eight-hour drive to Pembroke, N.C., by himself.

Already one player short for the Peach Belt Conference semifinals with Ashley Asouzu having to stay home with a concussion, the last thing Norton needed was to lose another player, especially if he's the cause of it.

"I just hope they don't drug test me when we get there," Norton said.

With a 28-1 record and No. 5 national ranking, the Lady Cougars are assured of playing in the NCAA Southeast Regional Tournament. But that doesn't lessen the importance of winning the Peach Belt tournament. This is a team within reach of greatness. They've already tied for the second-most wins in school history. But they are far from satisfied.

Norton has some historical perspective. He was the top assistant on those 1999-2000 and 2000-01 teams that made it to the final four. The '01 team was 31-0 before losing in the national semifinals. This year's team hasn't got caught up in the moment.

"You don't realize how special it is until well after it's over," Norton said. "You sit down and take a deep breath and say, 'Wow, that was an amazing thing that we just did.' It's kind of been that way this year. Even my wife said (before the last game), 'Do y'all realize you're 27-1?' I said, 'Yeah, but we're focused on to keep going.' "

Norton doesn't talk much about those final four teams. For one thing, most of his players were in kindergarten when those teams played. But he has used them as motivation to keep working and playing hard and staying focused on what got them this far.

"I've told them, 'I don't want you to take it for granted. Y'all are putting together a special run, one of the best in the history of this program -- men or women. I don't want you to let it end. So let's stay hungry. Let's win more games. The record for wins is 31. Your desire should be let's beat that and put yourselves in the record books.' "

Comparisons are inevitable. Norton said this team is more like the 2000 team in experience level. They start three sophomores and get significant contributions from freshmen.

"We had a whole bunch of seniors" in '01, Norton said. "They had gone to the final four the year before. So we were expected to be good. This year was a big question mark because we lost our three best players from last year. We're a young team. We start one senior. We have one senior who gives us limited minutes off the bench, and everybody else is underclassmen. So that's something that's totally different."

Nothing seems to bother this team, whether it's a tight game or the goofy tournament format, which included a first-round game Sunday, followed by five days off, then the semifinals to be hosted by the highest-remaining East Division men's team.

"I can't stand it. What is not good is not knowing where we were going," Norton said. "As a different coach pointed out, 'Y'all have had this unbelievable year. And yet you're having to travel eight hours to play in the conference semifinals.' Kind of like you didn't get rewarded for a great year. It is what it is. It's bizarre. But again, this group, they just worry about the next game. That's been a tremendous attribute of this team.

"It's a next game approach. I've had to explain multiple times what the conference tournament is about, what the next step would be. We've had them say, 'Coach, just tell us what the next game is, who the opponent is, give us a scouting report, and we'll be ready to go.' They don't get caught up in where we're ranked, who's ranked where. They don't know any of that. They don't care."

They also don't care who gets the credit. Norton cited Carrie Washington, a senior, as a prime example.

"She knows we're probably not going to run very many plays for her," Norton said. "She going to go and get every rebound and block shots. If she's going to score, it's going to be on offensive rebounds. She accepts that. Doesn't get her feelings hurt. No big deal."

Norton wasn't exaggerating much by saying "every rebound." She has 344 rebounds for the season, giving her 954 for her career, by far the most in school history. She's also an opposing player's worst nightmare with 90 blocks this season and 179 blocks for her career, again both school records.

Even Michelle Mitchell, who leads the team in scoring at 20 points a game, works hard to improve. After Mitchell the next-highest scorer in Dee Dee DeShazer at 11 points per game. Point guard Britteny Tatum came to CSU as a scorer in high school but has been content to serve as the playmaker.

The hallmark of this team is their defense. They are holding teams to 34.8 percent shooting and 58.2 points per game.

"We're not UConn," Norton said. "We haven't beat everybody by 30."

Despite their accomplishments, the Lady Cougars believe they can improve. They will have to if they want to win the Southeast Region and get back to the Elite Eight.

"I don't think we've played our best basketball yet," Norton said. "I don't think we've had but a couple of games where we played a full 40 minutes where we were really good on both ends of the floor. We think we can be better."

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