Cleveland's 21-game winning streak on the line against three-time AAA state champion Memphis East

Cleveland's 21-game winning streak on the line against three-time AAA state champion Memphis East

March 13th, 2019 by Patrick MacCoon in Breaking News

Cleveland's Isaiah Johnson (3) looks for an open teammate during the Blue Raiders' TSSAA Class AAA sectional against Blackman on March 4 in Cleveland, Tennessee.

Cleveland's Isaiah Johnson (3) looks for an open...

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

Cleveland junior point guard JaCobi Wood, with ball, will lead the Blue Raiders into their first state tournament appearance since 2005. They'll take on Memphis East in their quarterfinal opener in the TSSAA Class AAA bracket.

Cleveland junior point guard JaCobi Wood, with ball,...

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

It could be viewed as a challenge of biblical proportions on the basketball court.

The Cleveland boys have won 21 straight games going into the TSSAA Class AAA state tournament, but now the Blue Raiders are set to face Memphis East. The Mustangs have won three straight state titles and feature 7-foot senior James Wiseman, who was the nation's top recruit in the 2019 class and has signed with the University of Memphis.

The speedy, guard-oriented Blue Raiders (29-4) know it's a tall order as they take on the role of David versus Goliath, but they will look to cast a powerful stone in Thursday's quarterfinal against Memphis East (24-8) in Murfreesboro. Tipoff is set for 12:30 p.m. EDT at Middle Tennessee State University's Murphy Center.

"We are going to swing with everything we have," Cleveland coach Jason McCowan said. "I have been impressed with how our guys continue to handle their business. They are excited to be here and expected to be from day one. They have shown no fear."

Cleveland junior point guard JaCobi Wood has presented a calming influence on the court and is accustomed to playing against some of the country's finest in Amateur Athletic Union games outside of the high school season. His ability to make good decisions while playing at a fast tempo should be an asset in the Blue Raiders' first state tournament appearance since 2005 as they try to extend the program's lengthiest winning streak this century.

"I know there is some negativity about AAU basketball, but this is where the positives come into play," McCowan said. "JaCobi plays high-level basketball across the country and has played against this kind of size. He has the ability to kick into that other gear, but he doesn't have to do anything (beyond his best). His experience and leadership has been key for this team in our preparation for Memphis East."

Outside shooting will be key for Wood, who has averaged 19.3 points per game this season, and his teammates as they go against a significant rim protector. They have shown flashes of brilliance from deep and have scored 80 or more points seven times this season, including having half their games hit the 70-point mark.

Their man-to-man defense typically creates pressure and has held opponents to an average of 45 points per game, but now the challenge is to not allow easy baskets by Wiseman, who is billed as having a 7-foot-6 wingspan and is capable of scoring bursts. In one fourth quarter this season, he had 16 points, including three 3-pointers.

The Blue Raiders' tallest player is 6-foot-4, so a constant emphasis will have to be made to deny lob passes and double-team on box-outs to prevent easy points and scoring runs by Memphis East. Cleveland has some weapons for that battle — senior Isaiah Johnson is considered an all-state caliber defender and has averaged more than 2.5 steals per game this season, along with Wood.

"The biggest thing is keeping the score close and our nose in it," McCowan said. "I think we can still apply pressure on their guards, but when Wiseman gets it, we can not give him any gaps to drive through or get an easy look in transition.

"On offense, we have to be patient and keep the ball in our hands."

Memphis East split a pair of matchups this season with Chattanooga's Hamilton Heights Christian Academy, which went on to win this year's National Association of Christian Athletes' Division I championship. White Station is the only opponent that has scored more than 70 points against the Mustangs this season.

The Mustangs won their past three titles under the direction of Penny Hardaway, who is now the head coach at the University of Memphis, but first-year coach Darius Veasley has led them through a challenging schedule with opponents from eight states.

Now it's the Blue Raiders' turn to present a challenge and try to end the Mustangs' bid for a fourth consecutive championship. The winner advances to face either Brentwood (26-8) or Oakland (24-5) in a semifinal at 3:45 p.m. EDT Friday.

"It's exciting to be here," McCowan said. "We have so many people cheering us on. Former players have told us how excited they are for us, and I have had the chance to talk to every former Cleveland High boys' basketball head coach who is still alive.

"Our players are hungry and ready to battle."

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