CLEVELAND, Tenn. – Cleveland coach Jason McCowan gave his five seniors starting assignments in Tuesday’s game against McMinn County at Raider Arena.
The group responded by jumping out to a quick 11-point lead and the Blue Raiders went on to pound the Cherokees, 92-39, and clinched the District 5-3A championship, the tournament’s No. 1 seed and notched their 22nd regular season league win against a single loss over the last two years.
“I’m really proud of the seniors,” McCowan said. “They’re five really good kids and make my job an awful lot of fun. It’s tough to keep Dionte Ware and Jacobi Wood off the floor. There are times you can’t wait to get rid of seniors, but I’ll be sad to lose this bunch because they’re so special. They’ve worked hard and stuck with us.”
The Blue Raiders (19-3, 11-0) have one district game remaining at East Hamilton on Thursday, but the Hurricanes (19-5, 7-2) cannot catch them in the standings and are trying to hang onto second place in the standings. At 7-2, East Hamilton has a two-game edge over No. 3 Walker Valley, which will host this year’s tournament starting on Feb. 14.
Tuesday’s blowout was Cleveland’s most prolific offensive effort of the season, eclipsing the 86 points scored against Bradley Central on Jan. 5 in a 23-point win.
“You definitely feel like you’re playing downhill because things were moving pretty fast,” McCowan said. “We got off to the great start and it seemed like everybody we put in there played well.”
Junior guard Dionte Ware, who gladly gave up his starting spot for senior Josh Black, came off the bench and scored 18 points to pace Cleveland’s impressive offensive assault on the outmanned Cherokees (8-14, 5-6).
Deontae Davis added 15 points and Alex “Paco” Patterson finished with 14 points, and both are seniors. Wood, a sophomore, scored 12 points. Senior Romeo Wykle scored nine points, including six in the third quarter when the Blue Raiders outscored the Cherokees, 32-5, and opened an insurmountable 79-30 lead.
“Not starting was not a problem,” Ware said. “This was their (seniors) night; it wasn’t my night. When I got into the game, I just did what I always do and that’s to get some buckets.”
Patterson knocked down two of his four 3-pointers in the quarter right out of halftime, Wood scored seven points and Davis had five points, including one of his three 3s.
“It was fun starting with my other senior teammates,” Davis said. “I enjoyed that and we played hard in getting a 29-18 lead. The third quarter was probably the best run we’ve had in the four years I’ve played.”
Josh Black, the other senior not accustomed to starting, finished with nine points and four came in the runaway third period. The fifth senior, Mullek Bradford scored six points and had two buckets in the third.
The Blue Raiders, who have won three straight games and 17 of the last 18, used a 12-2 second-quarter run and stretch their lead to 41-21, basically decided the game in a 3 minute, 5 second spurt. Wykle and Davis hit back-to-back 3s midway through the spurt while Ware and Darius Howard had a layup and put-back, respectively, to cap it.
Ware’s first points came at the 7:02 mark of the second quarter and that jumper from the left corner triggered the 12-2 run.
“It was a great night,” Ware said. “Everybody that came in kept the energy going and that helped us keep the game at a high tempo.”
The Blue Raiders hammered the Cherokees, 32-3, starting the third period and the lead ballooned to 79-28.
Davis wants the Blue Raiders to keep their focus as the regular season nears an end because of one primary long-range goal that is within the team’s grasp.
“We want to be the top team in the district with a 12-0 record and we really want to go to state,” he said.
As impressive as the offensive performed Tuesday, McCowan said it has been the defense that has become the team’s staple ingredient to success.
“That’s one of the best things we do,” he said. “We want to hold people to 60 points and under and we take pride in doing that. We know when we get to playoff time there will be some low-scoring games, and your defense can travel with you. Sometimes your shots don’t travel as well.”
Jake Elkins paced the Cherokees with 12 points.
In the girls’ game, Cleveland’s Emma Flowers made a free throw with no time on the clock to give the Lady Blue Raiders (14-10, 7-4) a 46-45 win over the Lady Cherokees. Flowers finished with 10 points. Madison Dasher led Cleveland with 12 points that included three 3-pointers.
Kaitlynn Hennessee scored a game-high 20 points for McMinn County (13-8, 6-5).
McMinn County 13 7 5 9 – 39
Cleveland 29 18 32 13 – 92
McMinn County (39) – Evans 6, Bradley 1, Hammonds 2, Wilson 5, Runyan, Johnson, Sharp 1, Jake Elkins 12, Hicks, Brown, T. Jones 9, Buckner 1, J. Jones 2, Daniels, Beavers, Peel.
Cleveland (92) – Wykle 9, Johnson 4, Bradford 6, Jacobi Wood 12, Hurst, Colbaugh, Lay 1, Dionte Ware 18, Alex Patterson 14, Deontae Davis 15, McGowan, Howard 4, Burke, Black 9.
3-Point Goals – McMinn County 2 (Elkins 2), Cleveland 10 (Patterson 4, Davis 3, Ware 2, Wykle 1).
McMinn County 14 10 11 10 – 45
Cleveland 8 19 5 14 – 46
McMinn County (45) – Liner 5, Burns 5, Kaitlynn Hennessee 20, Green 8, Manney, Hicks 2, Scheistal 3, Baxter, Greaton 2.
Cleveland (46) – Reed, Madison Dasher 12, Franklin 6, Langford, Williams 5, Emma Flowers 10, Douglass 9, Callahan, Droke, Anderson 4.
3-Point Goals – McMinn County 5 (Green 2, Liner 1, Burns 1, Scheistal 1), Cleveland 7 (Dasher 3, Franklin 2, Williams 1).
(Contact Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @larryfleming44)