Cleveland boys' basketball coach Jason McCowan admitted that the early part of the season was a lot of chaos. The football team advanced to the state semifinals; then came the news that Cleveland's gym was going to be unfit to play in.
It took a while for the Blue Raiders to settle into the season, but they've hit a rhythm.
They claimed their seventh victory in eight games Tuesday, 58-50 at Ooltewah. That evened those teams at 4-2 in District 5-AAA midway through the league slate. It was essentially Cleveland's 11th consecutive away game, as home games have been played at Cleveland Middle School and Lee University.
"Sometimes I look around around and wonder how we've done this," McCowan said. "We've had a bunch of different contributions from different players. I just think the guys are playing hard for each other and figuring out who can help every night.
"Most nights we're not the most talented team on the floor -- certainly not tonight -- but we give good effort and execute very well."
Cleveland (8-5) was led by Kendrick Thompson's 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists. The Raiders outscored Ooltewah 15-6 in the decisive third quarter, in part because they starting holding the Owls to one shot per possession.
The Raiders led throughout the first quarter, but the Owls used an 8-0 run, capped by a Jarek Boyd steal and dunk, to take a 26-23 lead. After ties at 26 and 28 and a putback by Boyd with four seconds to go, Thompson banked in a three-quarter-court shot at the buzzer to give Cleveland a 31-30 edge at halftime.
The Raiders then went on a 9-0 run to start the third quarter and led 46-36 when it ended. The Owls got within five on a baseline drive by Ben Snider with 5:52 left in the game, but Thompson answered with his sixth 3-pointer and the gap never shrank below six the rest of the way.
"I thought us not giving them second-chance shots was huge, because they did such a good job on the boards," McCowan said. "Early in the season, we didn't know who we were, but we have figured out we have to bring our hard hats, get stops and figure out how to win, and we did that tonight."
After 10 offensive rebounds in the first half, Ooltewah (9-7) was held to three in the final 16 minutes. Snider had 22 points to lead the Owls, while Edward Montgomery added 11. Boyd had a game-high nine rebounds.
"Cleveland made a few buckets in the third quarter and we started pouting and putting our heads down. I guess we thought the game was over," Ooltewah coach Andre Montgomery said. "I keep telling our guys that body language is a key factor for the rest of the game, because once you let go mentally, it's a wrap."
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