Cleveland needed a win.
Ooltewah badly wanted one to move closer toward a No. 1 seed for the District 5-AAA tournament.
One of the teams played as if first place in the district in the standings was up for grabs.
With guard B.J. Bryant scorching Ooltewah with a career-high 33 points, Cleveland stormed to a 68-60 victory in Ed Foster Gymnasium and knocked the Owls out of sole possession of first place in fast-and-furious boys high school basketball action Tuesday night.
“The last three games are the best stretch of all-around games that I’ve seen C.J. play,” Cleveland coach Jason McCowan said. “We want to make sure he keeps it going. We don’t want to empty that tank.”
With the victory, which avenged a 64-62 loss to Ooltewah on Dec. 14 at Cleveland, the Blue Raiders (14-8 overall) moved into a tie with the Owls (14-6) for the district lead at 8-2.
“You could tell we played with some urgency,” Cleveland coach Jason McCowan said. They send a lot of waves of pressure at you. Other than one little spurt they got, we handled it really well.”
Bradley Central, which lost to Ooltewah, 57-51, on Dec. 11, has a 7-2 league mark after beating McMinn County, 69-58, on Tuesday. The Bears (13-8) have won eight in a row and play at Baylor on Wednesday.
“They were in the same boat we were in, but they pushed us out of the boat,” said Ooltewah’s junior guard Ben Snider, who led the Owls with 16 points, 15 of which came in the second half before he fouled out with 2:31 left. “Now we have to find out who our true basketball players are, who’s got heart and who might quit. For me, I take what coach (Jesse) Nayadley told us after the game as a challenge.”
Nayadley didn’t attempt to hide his continued annoyance with the Owls’ play in recent weeks.
“Unfortunately, we got about what I thought we’d get tonight,” Nayadley said. “Cleveland came out with a desire to beat us and we did not. That’s the bottom line.”
As evidenced by his sterling play, Bryant wanted a victory to fulfill his prophecy to Snider during summer basketball.
“We played against Bryant in the summer and he told us he was going to get after us this year,” Snider said. “This was his night and he ate us up.”
Bryant, whose previous single-game high was 32 in a Christmas tournament at Knoxville Bearden, was simply sensational.
The 5-foot-8-inch senior scored 17 points in the first half, leading the Blue Raiders to a 35-27 lead at the mid-game break. Bryant’s third 3 of the half gave Cleveland a 33-21 lead.
Early in the third quarter, the Owls trimmed Cleveland’s lead to 37-33, but Bryant scored 13 of Cleveland’s next 17 points, including three 3s, and the Blue Raiders headed into the fourth quarter with a 54-46 advantage.
With 3.5 seconds left in the quarter, Bryant tossed in an inbounds pass to sophomore Isaiah Beaty, immediately got it back in his hands and drilled a 30-foot 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded. That shot gave Bryant 30 points.
“We just went out there and executed and got the job done,” Bryant said. “I couldn’t have done what I did without my teammates. Ooltewah puts a lot of pressure on you and you’ve got to know what you’re doing and make smart plays against them.”
Bryant’s deepest 3 of the game – he finished with six, one shy of his best long-range effort – added to Nayadley’s irritation.
“We cut (the lead) there and (Bryant) banked one in and that broke us down a little bit,” the coach said. “We had a nice run going there.”
The Owls sliced Cleveland’s lead to 37-33 on Snider’s 3 from the right corner with 6:12 left in the third quarter.
Bryant answered with eight straight points and extended the Blue Raiders’ lead to 45-37. Snider scored back-to-back layups and Ty Presley tipped in an inbounds lob and the Owls climbed to within 45-43.
Cleveland’s Kendrick Thompson, who finished with 17 points, made one of his two 3s, Bryant dropped in two free throws, Jahmal Johnson hit one and then Bryant launched his bomb at the third-quarter buzzer.
The Blue Raiders, who have won three straight games and five out of seven, outscored Ooltewah, 6-1, to start the fourth quarter and opened a 60-47 spread.
Cleveland led 65-53 with 2:04 remaining. The Owls got seven points in the final 1:12 to the Blue Raiders’ one for the final eight-point margin of victory.
“It’s a big win for us,” Bryant said. “I’m happy now that we’re in the race for first place. I just hope we can finish the season strong.”
The Blue Raiders have two district games remaining – at Walker Valley and home against Rhea County.
Ooltewah also has two league games left. The Owls host Soddy-Daisy on Friday and then close out the regular season at Bradley Central on Feb. 8, a game that was postponed by the threat of icy conditions last Friday.
“I don’t know what happened over Christmas, but we haven’t played well since then,” Nayadley said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but we’re running out of games.”
Another slow start thwarted the Owls against Cleveland.
The Blue Raiders went on an 8-0 to close the first quarter to break an 11-11 tie.
How Cleveland scored miffed Nayadley.
After Bryant’s 3 opened the scoring, the Blue Raiders scored their next 16 points on layups.
“We came out playing the way we’ve been playing for about 10 games,” Nayadley said. “We lost it in the first quarter. You can tell them (players) and tell them, but it’s real simple. They’re either going to figure it out in the next game or two or we’re going to be working on next year. It’s up to them.”
Antonio Jackson scored 13 points for the Owls.
Johnson added 12 for the Blue Raiders.
Cleveland girls 36, Ooltewah 21: The Lady Blue Raiders got a scare for three quarters from the Lady Owls.
With both teams struggling to score, the Lady Owls had a 21-18 lead heading into the final eight minutes of play.
Cleveland blitzed Ooltewah, 21-0, in the fourth quarter and won going away.
Atarah Abdullah-Muhammad led Cleveland (15-6, 6-3) with 11 points and Bre Ware added 10.
Leondra Barrett and Calli Cross each scored eight points for Ooltewah (3-17, 1-9).
Cleveland 6 7 5 18 – 36
Ooltewah 6 9 6 0 – 21
Cleveland (36) – Berry 4, Bre Ware 10, Scoggins 6, Atarah Abdullah-Muhammad 11, Walkup, McClendon 5.
Ooltewah (21) – Hall 2, Taylor, Cooper, Jones, Kennedy, Baker 3, Leondra Barrett 8, Calli Cross 8.
3-Point Goals – Cleveland none; Ooltewah 1 (Baker).
Cleveland 19 16 19 14 – 68
Ooltewah 11 16 19 14 – 60
Cleveland (68) – C.J. Bryant 33, Ware, Kendrick Thompson 17, Little 4, Jahmal Johnson 12, Jones 2, Beaty, Scott, Constant.
Ooltewah (60) – Antonio Jackson 13, Ware 4, Ben Snider 16, Robinson 8, Presley 5, Boyd, Maston 5, Bass 6, King 3.
3-Point Goals – Cleveland 8 (Bryant 6, Thompson 2); Ooltewah 5 (Bass 2, Presley, Snider, Robinson).
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)