VALDOSTA – Newcomer Michael Cole exploded for 29 points on 13 of 17 shooting to lead Valdosta State to a 92-79 home win over Clayton State Tuesday night.

Cole, a junior from Jacksonville, Fla., dominated the paint – finishing several plays around the rim with an array of post moves and thunderous dunks. Cole also had a team-high nine rebounds, a block and two assists in 35 minutes.

Going toe-to-toe with Clayton State big man Jalen Shaw, the 6-foot-7, 210-pound Cole used his combination of length, quickness and leaping ability to find success against the 6-10 Shaw.

"Coach ran a couple sets for me because we knew we had a couple of mismatches," Cole said. "Big dude was kind of slow on his feet so we took advantage of it. All of the disadvantages they had, we took advantage of them and we capitalized on them."

The Blazers (2-1) trailed the sharp-shooting Lakers 49-47 at halftime, but turned the game with better rim protection and aggressive defensive pressure in the second half.

After allowing the Lakers to shoot 52.8% from the floor and a sizzling 8 of 14 from 3-point range, the Blazers ratcheted up their intensity on the defensive end while also cleaning up some sloppy play on offense.

As a result, the Blazers held the Lakers to 32.3% shooting and just 2 of 9 from beyond the arc after halftime. 

"Our key was to stay out on the shooters," Blazers coach Mike Helfer said. "We were really helping on the big kid (Shaw), who's a very good player. We just tried to stay out and not give those shooters those free looks. ... I didn't think we got very tired. We were in good shape and able to get to places faster. Obviously, we're super athletic with Mike and Maurice (Gordon) so when they get off their feet, you'd better have a floater up there or they're gonna get it. Clayton's well-coached, good team. Vince (Alexander) does a great job. That had the feeling of a Gulf South game or an NCAA Tournament game."

After eight first-half turnovers, the Blazers committed just two turnovers and shot 51.4% from the field the rest of the way.

Led by Cole and the slashing and aggressive play of guards Jacolbey Owens and D.J. Mitchell, the Blazers outscored the Lakers 66-39 in the paint. 

Defensively, the Blazers finished with 13 steals, led by junior Cam Hamilton's five takeaways en route to forcing 18 Laker turnovers. The Blazers also thrived in transition as they won the fast break battle 16-7.

Mitchell, who had a team-high 18 points off the bench in the Blazers' 69-61 win against Fort Valley State over the weekend, once again spearheaded the bench unit Tuesday. The 6-5 sophomore poured in 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting along with seven rebounds, two assists and two steals as the VSU reserves outscored Clayton State 25-12.

Owens added 14 points on 6 of 10 shooting with three steals in 30 minutes.

A layup by Owens gave the Blazers a 69-59 lead with 11:30 left in the game, but the Lakers responded with a 6-0 burst to cut the VSU lead to 69-65 with 9:53 remaining. A stop by the Blazers led to a Cole slam in transition on a feed from Owens that jumpstarted a 9-2 run capped by a triple from Mitchell to give the Blazers a 78-67 lead with 6:44 to go.

The Blazers took their largest lead of the night at 13 points on a layup by Cole with 4:02 remaining. With the game in-hand, the Blazers put an exclamation point on the game as Cole passed ahead to the 6-1 Owens, who skied for a two-handed slam with 9 seconds left for the game's final basket.

Kobie Johnson led the Lakers with 19 points – 17 coming in the first half as Johnson shot 6 of 8 overall and a red-hot 5 of 6 from beyond the arc. The Blazers held Johnson to 0-4 shooting in the second half.

Shaw recorded a double-double for the Lakers with 14 points and 12 rebounds along with a team-high four assists and two blocks in 25 minutes. Ricardo Saams Jr. added 14 points and eight rebounds while Ricardo Lynch had 11 points and two steals in the loss.

UP NEXT

The Blazers the road for the second time this season as they travel to West Palm Beach, Fla. for the Palm Beach Atlantic Thanksgiving Classic next weekend.

VSU will face Lynn Nov. 26 at 4 p.m. followed by a matchup against Palm Beach Atlantic Nov. 27.

Shane Thomas is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.

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