Cleveland shrugged off a beat-your-head-against-the-wall start Tuesday and then spent the rest of the night chasing a bit of history worthy of a rowdy celebration at Soddy-Daisy High School.
Down by 16 points in the second quarter, the Blue Raiders reached down for a huge dose of grit and rallied back to send the game into overtime, got a game-winning put-back from Grant Hurst at the final buzzer and defeated East Hamilton, 56-54, in the District 5-3A tournament title game.
The celebration stemmed from Cleveland winning its third straight tourney title. The Blue Raiders also beat the Hurricanes for the 2017 title and knocked off Walker Valley in 2018.
“There’s only one other team in the history of Cleveland High School that’s done that,” jubilant coach Jason McCowan said despite almost losing his voice during the hard-fought game. It was in 1996, 1997 and 1998. That’s pretty good company.”
The Blue Raiders and Hurricanes turn next to the Region 3-3A tournament quarterfinals on Saturday. Cleveland will host Rhea County, the No. 4 team out of District 6-3A. East Hamilton will be at home against Cookeville, 6-3A’s No. 3 squad.
Bradley Central, which shellacked McMinn County, 72-45, in the 5-3A consolation game, goes to No. 2 White County and the Cherokees travel to 6-3A champion Stone Memorial.
Stone Memorial defeated White County, 48-47, for the title and Cookeville whipped Rhea County, 64-43, for third place.
All games start at 7 p.m. local time.
“We may see (Cleveland) again down the road,” East Hamilton coach Frank Jones said. “Cleveland is a great team and this was a great basketball game. We’ll be OK. I saw some good things form my guys tonight. We fought hard; we just made some mistakes that hurt.”
JaCobi Wood finished with a team-high 21 points, Isaiah Johnson scored 16 and Hurst added 14. His game-winner at the buzzer was his only points registered in the overtime period. In fact, the talented Blue Raider trio of Hurst, Johnson and Wood scored all seven points in the extra time.
Jamaal Walker paced East Hamilton with 21 points and managed only four in the fourth quarter and overtime. Cam Montgomery finished with 14 points.
Walker, who had one year to play at East Hamilton after transferring from Baylor, was disappointed with the outcome.
“It’s probably the toughest loss we’ve had,” he said. “It hurts because of the way bounced their way and we needed to make some free throws when we needed to.”
The Canes, who fell to 3-16 against the Blue Raiders, went 13-for-21 at the charity line and Walker made 6 of 8. In the fourth period and overtime, they were 6 for 10.
Cleveland was 11-of-18 at the stripe and Wood hit 8-of-11.
“If we make half of the ones we missed, that would have made a difference,” Walker said.
The Blue Raiders (25-4) trailed 23-7 midway through the second period and spent the rest of regulation trying to catch up with the Hurricanes (21-8). Grant’s 3-pointer 30 seconds into the final quarter tied the game at 37-37.
After a miss by East Hamilton’s Darwin Randolph, Grant, a cool-headed, 15-year-old sophomore who was named the tournament’s MVP, hit a baseline jumper to give Cleveland its first lead of the game at 39-37.
In the final seconds of regulation, Montgomery made a free throw for a 48-46 advantage. Cleveland’s Alex Williams hit a free throw – his only points in the game – to bring the Blue Raiders to within a point with 7.5 seconds left.
Following a timeout, Montgomery, the district’s regular season MVP, again hit one charity toss to reinstate the Canes’ two-point spread with 6.4 seconds on the clock. Montgomery’s second free throw was off the mark, Isaiah Johnson quickly got the ball and made a lightning-quick dash down the far sideline and ignored East Hamilton defenders for a spine-tingling layup that sent the crowd-pleasing title showdown into overtime.
“I just had to make a big play,” Johnson said. “They weren’t stepping up on defense so I took the shot. I knew it was good as soon as I let it out of my hands. We were down early but you can never count us out. We’re going to keep playing no matter what the whole game.”
Darwin Randolph hit a layup and Jamaal Walker ripped a straight-on jumper that gave the Canes a quick 53-49 overtime advantage.
Jacobi Wood made two free throws.
Montgomery was true on 1-of-2 tosses, pushing the Canes’ lead to 54-51 with 2:03 remaining.
An errant East Hamilton inbounds pass led directly to Johnson drilling a 22-foot 3 from the top of the circle and tied the battle royale at 54-all.
The Canes put ball into play and Johnson wound up with it.
“The Blue Raiders worked for a shot and Hurst took it from the left wing. The ball hit the rim and bounced toward the other side of the lane. A Cleveland player grabbed it and tossed it back to the bucket. East Hamilton’s Marcus Long got his paws on the ball and turned to his right. Hurst sneaked in and picked Long’s pocket and put in an uncontested layup for the win.
“I was mad I missed the shot and I just followed it, somehow got the ball and I won the game for us,” Hurst said. “I wasn’t hitting my shots tonight, but I did all I could offensively. I think our defense came up big.”
Hurst was so pumped he could barely get words out while being slapped on the back and hugged by his teammates.
“We’ve won 17 in a row and we’ve won three straight district tournament championships,” he said. “It’s a great feeling.”
McCowan had yelled, screamed and loudly pleaded with his troops throughout the game he sounded like he was talking with pebbles in his mouth.
“This will surprise you, but Grant leads us in rebounding,” the coach said. “So, he was in the right place at the right time there at the end. When he shot the ball, I looked right at the ref and he called it good. They don’t review those things so the game had to be over. It was a gritty performance.”
Rooster Cogburn gritty.
The Hurricanes, who split two regular-season games with Cleveland, came out on fire and led 19-5 after one quarter and pushed the spread to 23-7 in the second period on two free throws by Morrell Schramm, capping a 10-0 run.
“I think they were maybe a little frustrated right then,” Montgomery said. “They made some adjustments at halftime and so did we. This is a real tough loss because we played one of our best games defensively of the year. To come out with a loss hurt.”
Walker and Schramm hit two 3s to start the scoring. Schramm added a layup and Montgomery hit a 10-foot bank shot, giving the Canes a 13-3 lead. Walker knocked down a 12-foot jumper and made 1-of-2 free throws, Darwin Randolph made a layup and Schramm finished the 10-0 run with a pair of free throws and East Hamilton was up 23-7.
“We got hit in the mouth,” McCowan said. “They were playing well and we had a lid on the basket. They’re a great team and it’s hard to play those guys from behind.
“When we tied the game to get to overtime, I said, ‘Lets play from the lead and we couldn’t even do that.”
Other than its first lead at 39-37 lead that lasted 51 seconds, Cleveland’s second lead came on Hurst’s game winner at the final buzzer.
Cleveland 7 15 12 15 7 – 56
East Hamilton 15 13 9 12 5 – 54
Cleveland (56) – Dale, Isiah Johnson 16, Howard 2, JaCobi Wood 21, Hurst 14, Colbaugh, McGowan 2, Williams 1.
East Hamilton (54) – Johnson, Jamaal Walker 21, Cam Montgomery 14, Schramm 9, S. Randolph, Long 3, Shropshire, D. Randolph 6.
3-Point Goals – Cleveland 5 (Johnson 2, Hurst 2, Wood 1), East Hamilton 3 (Walker 1, Montgomery 1, Schramm 1).
McMinn County 5 10 12 18 – 45
Bradley Central 19 17 25 11 – 72
McMinn County (45) – Daniel, Sharp 1, T. Runyan 1, Wilson 9, B. Runyan, Franks 8, James 2, McClure, Jacob Elkins 10, Torbett 3, Tyler Peel 14, Wooden, Brown.
Bradley Central (72) – Quante Berry 12, Boyd 3, Curry 2, Whaley 4, Tyler Ferguson 13, Mason Rothwell 24, McCleary 5, McClary 4, Davis 2.
3-Point Goals – McMinn County 5 (Wilson 2, Elkins 2, Torbett 1), Bradley Central 5 (Rothwell 3, Boyd 1, McClary 1).
Cleveland – Grant Hurst (MVP), JaCobi Wood, Isaiah Johnson, Kley McGowan
East Hamilton – Jamaal Walker, Cam Montgomery, Morrell Schramm
Bradley Central – Quante Berry, Mason Rothwell
McMinn County – Jacob Elkins, Tyler Peel
Ooltewah – Logan Henry
Soddy-Daisy – Zac Ryans
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com and Twitter @larryfleming44)