Cleveland boys beat East Hamilton to win Region 3-AAA basketball title

Cleveland boys beat East Hamilton to win Region 3-AAA basketball title

February 28th, 2019 by Patrick MacCoon in Breaking News

The Cleveland boys' basketball team and its fans celebrate the Region 3-AAA championship victory over visiting East Hamilton on Thursday night. The Blue Raiders have won 20 straight games and are a win away from the state tournament.

Photo by Patrick MacCoon /Times Free Press.

Updated with more information at 11:05 p.m. on Feb. 28, 2019.

Cleveland senior Darius Howard goes up for a shot in the Region 3-AAA title game against visiting East Hamilton on Thursday night. Howard finished with eight points to help the Blue Raiders to their first region championship since 2010.

Cleveland senior Darius Howard goes up for a...

Photo by Patrick MacCoon /Times Free Press.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Behind the leadership of junior point guard JaCobi Wood and a fiery defensive performance in the third quarter Thursday night, Cleveland celebrated its first boys' basketball region championship since 2010.

The Blue Raiders beat district rival East Hamilton 57-49 in the 3-AAA title game, extending their winning streak to 20 games, but the group that stumbled earlier this season is not satisfied.

"Our job is not finished," said Wood, who was named MVP of the region tournament after a 23-point, five-assist performance against the Hurricanes. "Winning this game was a huge step in the right direction, but we are going to do whatever we can to win Monday night and get to Murfreesboro."

Cleveland (28-4) will host Blackman in a sectional at 7 p.m. Monday with a spot in the Class AAA state tournament on the line, and a trip to Murfreesboro as one of the final eight teams would add another achievement to the Blue Raiders' turnaround. They lost their first two games in district play this past fall, including one to East Hamilton, but they have not lost at all since mid-December.

"I felt like back in December I had to have a press conference like (Green Bay Packers quarterback) Aaron Rodgers and say 'Hey, let's calm down. It's going to be OK,'" Cleveland coach Jason McCowan said. "All of our guys said, 'Coach, we got you.' The fight, heart and resilience of this bunch is something extraordinary."

The Hurricanes (22-9), who could simply find no rhythm the first three quarters of Thursday's game, will travel to Murfreesboro's Oakland for a sectional Monday night.

Wood, Darius Howard and Kley McGowan had blocks as part of a shutdown defensive performance that led to transition points for the Blue Raiders. Cleveland stretched an eight-point halftime lead to 49-28 when senior guard Isaiah Johnson faded back in the left corner to drain 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer.

"We needed that cushion," Coach McCowan said. "The third quarter was gigantic for us. It was good to have that lead because East Hamilton fought back and we let off too much in the fourth quarter."

The teams traded 21-8 runs over the final two quarters.

East Hamilton was led by senior Jamaal Walker, who scored 12 of his team-high 18 points in the fourth, and Cameron Montgomery added 13 points.

"We made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball," Hurricanes coach Frank Jones said. "We have the potential to win Monday but have to play with rhythm and good tempo. Cleveland had some bad things happen early in the year, but it caused them to come together and work harder. They brought their 'A' game tonight."

Johnson scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half for Cleveland, while Howard finished with eight points and seven rebounds. And with Wood running the offense, the Blue Raiders will try to keep going.

"JaCobi goes out there and plays his guts out with these guys," Coach McCowan said. "He controls the basketball and runs this team beautifully. He is one of the best junior guards in the state and makes everyone around him better. I'll take him anywhere and put him up against anyone."

Said Wood: "We play as a team and don't care about accolades. We are all one and trust each other. We will continue to dig deep and try to accomplish our dream."

Contact Patrick MacCoon at pmaccoon@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.