CLEVELAND, Tenn. – As a No. 1 seed, Cleveland had reason to feel comfortable going into Saturday’s Region 3-3A boys’ basketball tournament against No. 4 Cookeville.
However, the Cavaliers figured they were the Blue Raiders’ equal.
And they were.
Cookeville overcame a sluggish start and then took the battle to Cleveland over the final three quarters, Noah Hilliker and Alex Garrett combined for 50 points and the Cavaliers pulled out a shocking 70-68 victory over the Blue Raiders at Raider Arena.
“This is how we thought we’d play the whole year,” said Hilliker, a senior guard who scored a game-high 27 points. “This is not a four-seed team. In our mind, this game was a one-seed against a one-seed and that’s how we played.”
Garrett finished with 23 points.
Of eight Class 3A boys' region openers in East Tennessee pitting No. 1 against No. 4 seeds, Cleveland’s upset loss was one of only two recorded on Saturday. In the other one, No. 4 LaVergne shocked No. 1 Lawrence County, 58-41.
In girls' regional first-round games on Friday between Nos. 1 and 4 seeds, the higher seeded team won seven of eight matchups. Blackman, a No. 4, upset No. 1 Shelbyville, 61-48.
With the victory, Cleveland’s season – 22 wins against five losses – came to a crashing end, its District 5-3A regular season and tournament titles already a distant memory.
“I’ll say this is the most disappointing (loss) just because of the senior class we have,” Blue Raiders coach Jason McCowan said. “I can’t even begin to tell you what it feels like to go in that locker room with a group as special as this one and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ To tell 17- and 18-year-old kids that life’s not fair doesn’t resonate in a moment like right now.”
It was a tough night for District 5-3A teams, as only East Hamilton, a No. 3 seed, was able to pull out a win. The Hurricanes defeated White County, 74-62, behind DaVae Hughley’s 23-point effort in a hostile, jam-packed gymnasium and will face Cookeville in a Tuesday semifinal at 6 p.m. at Rhea County High School.
Walker Valley lost to Warren County, 52-48, and McMinn County dropped a tough 63-62 decision to Stone Memorial, the No. 1 seed from District 6-3A.
Stone Memorial plays Warren County in the other semifinal at 7:45 p.m.
The girls’ portion of semifinal action is scheduled for Monday night. Bradley Central will play host Rhea County at 6 p.m. and East Hamilton takes on Stone Memorial at 7:30 p.m.
After recovering from the punch Cleveland delivered in a 22-11 first quarter, the Cavaliers (23-8) played their half-court offense brilliantly, even running with the Raiders on occasion. Nursing a 53-48 lead going into the fourth, Cookeville shortened the game by running time off the clock and then breaking Cleveland’s back by hitting crucial field goals that produced 59-50 lead.
“We got in the wrong bracket,” Cookeville coach Kevin Bray said, referring to his team losing semifinal and third-place games in the District 6-3A tournament and falling into the treacherous fourth-seed slot in the region brackets.
“But,” Bray said, “we got lucky and pulled one out.”
Hilliker got hot in the second period by hitting three straight field goals and adding a free throw to the third one that tied the game at 29-29. Cleveland’s Isaiah Johnson’s put-back gave Cleveland a 31-29 lead, but sophomore wing Bailey Gilliam knocked down a 3 and gave the Cavaliers’ their first lead.
“We got exactly what we thought (from Hilliker),” McCowan said. “He can get hot. Against Van Buren had had seven 3s. He had nine games of 20 points or more; he’s a rhythm player and once he made his first two shots I said, ‘We can’t leave him open.’ ”
The Cavaliers closed the third period with six straight points –four by Garrett – and Garrett opened the fourth with a 3-pointer from the left corner. Midway through the quarter, Hilliker, a 5-foot-11 guard, made three straight field goals, the last two behind the 3-point arc, capped an 18-4 run and stretched the lead to 51-36.
Cleveland mounted a rally by outscoring the Cavaliers, 12-2, closing the quarter and climbing to within 53-48. Dionte Ware had six points in the spurt and finished with a team-high 19.
“We knew they were a team that could make a run,” Hilliker said, “and we had to counter them. We just kept battling them.”
Hilliker and Gilliam each knocked down 3s to start the final period, pushing the Cavaliers’ lead out to 59-50.
Then it was a punch-for-punch game to the final buzzer.
Hilliker’s field goal gave Cookeville a 61-52 advantage. Trailing 65-57, Johnson drained a 3 and Jacobi Wood hit two free throws and the Blue Raiders were down just three points. Garrett countered for the Cavaliers. Romeo Wykle’s 3-pointer capped a 15-8 run and Cleveland trailed 67-65.
Jacob Reeves broke open behind Cleveland’s pressure defense and drove for a layup with 12.3 seconds left. Cleveland’s Deontae Davis, held to five points, hit three free throws – he was fouled on a 3-point attempt – with 2.4 seconds on the clock.
Cleveland fouled quickly and Reeves made 1 of 2 free throws.
Ware tried to full-court desperation shot but it was not close to reaching the target as the game ended.
“It’s super-frustrating and I want to cry because I love this team so much,” said Ware, a junior who led Cleveland with 19 points. “It’s like my family.”
Wykle scored 16 points that included four 3-pointers and Mullek Bradford added 12 points.
East Hamilton 74, White County 62: Hughley, a senior who was instrumental in helping the Hurricanes reach their first state tournament in 2017, was a workhorse all night against the dangerous Warriors, No. 2 seed from District 6-3A.
“If you want American traditional basketball, got to White County,” East Hamilton coach Zach Roddenberry said in a telephone interview while riding the team bus back to Chattanooga. “They had a pep band, the place was packed and it was super exciting. We got there about 5:30 and fifty or sixty students were lined up to get in the building.”
The Hurricanes (23-7) raced out to a 24-10 first-quarter lead with Justin Dozier, the District 5-3A Player of the Year, scoring seven points and Hughley adding six.
East Hamilton kept the pressure on White County (13-19) by speeding the game pace up to its liking and stretched the lead to 41-25 at halftime.
Hughley continued his torrid play with eight of the team’s 18 points in the third period – he was super active on the backboards as well – and the Canes maintained the 16-point spread heading into the final eight minutes.
“DaVae had a great game and a better game on the boards,” Roddenberry said. “We got a lot of transition points and played probably the most unselfish that we’ve played in three weeks. For sure, it was our best ball movement in a while.”
The Warriors tried to come back and outscored the Canes 20-12 down the stretch, but East Hamilton held on for the victory.
“We’ve talked all week for us to get where we want to go we have to take one game at a time,” the Canes coach said. “We knew the environment at White County would be super tough. We’ve got this game now and we know crazy things can happen. I mean, Cleveland got beat at home, Walker Valley loses at home and McMInn County lost by one point.
“So anything can happen during the tournaments. We’ve got really good team chemistry right now and I’m excited. They guys are excited. We can’t wait for Tuesday.”
East Hamilton is now two wins from tying the school-record best 25 posted by the 2016-17 Hurricanes.
Drew Williams scored 13 points for the Canes. Grant Slatten led the Warriors with 22 points and Dyson Reece added 11.
Cookeville 11 27 15 17 – 70
Cleveland 22 10 16 20 – 68
Cookeville (70) – Humphrey 1, Gilliam 9, Jacob Reeves 10, Brown, Noah Hilliker 27, Alex Garrett 23
Cleveland (68) – Romeo Wykle 16, Johnson 7, Wood 9, Dionte Ware 19, Patterson, Davis 5, Howard, Black, Mullek Bradford 12.
3-Point Goals – Cookeville 8 (Hilliker 4, Gilliam 2, Reeves 1, Garrett 1), Cleveland 8 (Wykle 4, Bradford 2, Wood 1, Johnson 1).
East Hamilton 24 17 18 15 – 74
White County 10 15 16 21 – 62
East Hamilton (74) – Wilson 8, Drew Williams 13, Montgomery 7, Paisley 3, DaVae Hughley 23, S. Randolph 5, Dozier 9, D. Randolph, Johnson, Hammett, Schramm 6, Walker.
White County (62) – Nash 3, Dyson Reece 11, Burchett 2, Kinser 7, Webster 4, Grant Slatten 22, Winningham 6, Clark 7.
3-Point Goals – East Hamilton 8 (Wilson 2, Hughley 2, Dozier 2, Paisley 1, Montgomery 1), White County 8 (Slatten 4, Reece 3, Nash 1).
(Contact Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @larryfleming44)