MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Cleveland tried everything possible to prepare for a Memphis East basketball team that would have a 7-foot center roaming around the lane and presenting himself as a defensive border wall.
Wiseman, a University of Memphis signee who could very well be playing in the NBA in just over a year, was everything the Blue Raiders knew he could be.
While he blocked one shot, the Blue Raiders had to -- or chose to -- alter others.
He grabbed 10 rebounds and scored 20 points on 10-of-14 shooting.
Most importantly, Wiseman changed Cleveland’s way of playing basketball.
As a result, the three-time defending state champion Mustangs, who have won 10 straight state tourney game and 32 all-time while the other seven teams in the bracket have a combined 35 victories, crushed the Blue Raiders, 77-51, with most of the starters enjoying the action from the sidelines in the fourth quarter.
“When you’re playing the three-time defending champion and they’ve got a kid going to be a pro soon, you can’t get off to a bad start,” said Cleveland coach Jason McCowan, the winningest coach in program history.
“It rattled us, no question about it.”
Memphis East will play Brentwood in one of Friday’s semifinal games. Brentwood knocked off Oakland, 50-47, in overtime just prior to the Cleveland-Memphis East contest. Whitehaven plays Bearden in the other semifinal.
Senior guard Isaiah Johnson, a sparkplug on both ends of the floor all season, explained the emotional mix of participating in the state tournament.
“It means a lot to have played with all these guys all these years,” said Johnson, who was held to seven points, six below his seasonal average. “They’re my teammates, brothers and to get here is an amazing feeling but it sucks to lose.”
During their last practice in Raider Arena, the Blue Raiders were improvising trying to simulate Wiseman’s wing span, including hockey sticks and smaller sticks resembling Q-Tips on steroids, nothing really helped once the players got on the same court as the super-talented giant.
“You’re not used to someone being able to throw the ball up to the rim and him dunk it,” McCowan said. “What do you do? The only thing we could have done is to intentionally foul him and we’re not going to do that; he’s too good of a player and you don’t want to hurt him or anything like that.
“Defensively, if they miss a shot you have to work really hard to box him out because he’ll go get it. We don’t have the go-get. A couple times I looked around and thought, ‘There’s nothing you can do about that. The kid is going to be a big-time college player and Lord willing he’ll be a pro player in about 14 months.”
No matter what Cleveland had in store for Wiseman, the defensive scheme would not have affected his play.
“No,” he said. “I’ve seen it all. I’ve been double- and triple-teamed all year. In that situation, I just try to be copacetic and neutral and get my teammates involved.”
Wiseman, who had seven defensive rebounds, finished with six dunks and countless times cut off driving Blue Raiders, who wisely thought hard about challenging the big guy in the paint.
Say a little more about Wiseman, coach McCowan.
“He was literally jumping over our kids,” he said. “We have two guys on him once and he just jumps over one of them. Don’t say he could (do it), he does. Memphis sees kids like that and Whitehaven has a guy that’s 7-foot-3 (junior Jordan Whitmore). Maybe we can talk Mayor (Kevin) Brooks into injecting something in our Wheaties back in Cleveland. You just can’t simulate what Wiseman does.”
Another problem for East opponents is understanding that Wiseman isn’t the only good player on the court. They’re not as tall as their prized teammate, but they can play the game.
Tadarius Jacobs scored 15 points and was 4-for-5 from the field, hit both 3s he attempted, made both free throws and claimed six rebounds. Only Kley McGowan could match Jacob’s rebound total. McGowan also scored 10 points.
Derrein Merritweather had 12 points and Harwell closed with 10.
East (25-8), which lost the District 16-3A tournament title to Whitehaven and then beat the Tigers for the Region 8-3A crown, mauled the much smaller Blue Raiders (29-5) on the boards, 36-11, and 23 came on the defensive glass.
Once Cleveland did get off a shot, it didn’t have many second-chances.
The Blue Raiders, for obvious reasons, were not as aggressive attacking the rim, something they utilized to great success during a 21-game winning streak coming into Murfreesboro.
With the lane practically closed down like monstrous afternoon interstate traffic jams in Chattanooga, Cleveland started cranking up 3-point bombs, a majority of which missed the mark. At halftime, Cleveland had made just 2 of 14 long-range shots and was shooting 14.3 percent. The Blue Raiders were 8-for-30 (26.7 percent) behind the arc at game’s end.
Memphis East was knocking down most everything they threw at the goal and shot 71.4 percent (15 of 21) in the first two quarters to take a 34-19 lead into halftime.
“The things we wanted to do, I thought we executed really well to take some tough shots and keep the ball out of Wiseman’s hands,” McCowan said. “We wanted the other four to beat us.”
Wiseman failed to score in the first period, but the Mustangs had a 15-9 lead. Harwell, however, scored nine of the 15 points. Jacobs had eight points at halftime. Isaiah Cathey had six.
“They started shooting it really well,” McCowan said, “and we didn’t. If we could have shot better, we could have extended the game and put a little pressure on them. That’s what we lived and died on this whole year, especially in the long winning streak. We got off to really good starts.”
Memphis East, making its 16th appearance at state compared to Cleveland’s fourth and second since 1997 when it won its lone state title, is not a flashy team. What they are, though, is a fundamentally strong, polished squad that won’t always beat teams with a sledgehammer. A few taps on the noggin’ with a household hammer can also work wonders.
Sophomore Grant Hurst lit a spark in the Blue Raiders with back-to-back 3s in the final 58 seconds of the second period, but they still trailed by 15 points at halftime. McGowan hit a 3 to start the third quarter. Hurst finished with eight points half his average in the Blue Raiders' previous 33 games.
Memphis East then scored 21 of the game’s next 23 points and built a demoralizing 56-28 lead, basically sending the message the Mustangs were going to be someone else’s nightmare in in the semifinals.
Cleveland outscored the Mustangs in the fourth quarter, 23-21, but made no difference.
“We’ve played together as a team the whole time this season,” said junior guard JaCobi Wood, who paced Cleveland with 15 points. “When we play together, we can do whatever we want to do.”
As long as there’s not a guy named Wiseman on the other team.
Memphis East 18 16 22 21 – 77
Cleveland 9 10 9 23 – 51
Memphis East (77) – Thomas 2, Nautica Harwell 10, Cathey 6, Haywood 6, James Wiseman 20, Derrein Merriweather 12, Tadarius Jacobs 15, McFadgon, Richmond, Washington 2, Jackson, Te. Jacobs 4.
Cleveland (51) – Johnson 7, Howard 2, JaCobi Wood 15, Hurst 8, Kley McGowan 10, Dale, D. Bunton 5, Colbaugh 2, K. Bunton, Armstrong, Hall, Stum 2.
3-Point Goals – Memphis East 8 (Merriweather 4, Ta. Jacobs 2, Harwell 1, T. Jacobs 1), Cleveland 8 (Wood 2, Hurst 2, McGowan 2, Johnson, D. Bunton 1).
Friday’s Class 3A Schedule
Whitehaven vs. Bearden, 1:15 p.m.
Memphis East vs. Brentwood, 2:45 p.m.
All times CDT
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)