CLEVELAND, Tenn. — During the pregame shootaround for the Region 3-AAA boys' championship game Thursday night at Bradley Central, first-year Cleveland coach Reggie Tucker checked to make sure his backup point guard was prepared.
Antonio Whaley said so, then proved he was by helping lead the Blue Raiders to a 69-61 victory over their archrival and his former school.
"Antonio was ready to play," Tucker said. "I told him before the game, 'Hey, is the pit bull ready to play today?' He said, 'Coach, I am ready to bite.' He showed that and played well and under control."
The 5-foot-6 senior rattled in a 3-pointer with a minute left in the third quarter, then closed the period by hitting a contested left-handed layup to give his team a six-point lead and provide a spark.
Whaley, mobbed by teammates and fans soon after the game, scored nine points in the second half, with his steal and score with 5:55 remaining building a 52-45 lead. His role was expanded after Mr. Basketball finalist JaCobi Wood picked up four fouls in the first half and did not return for Cleveland until 6:30 remained in the game.
"This really means a lot to me and my teammates," Whaley said. "Hard work pays off, and I had to go hard tonight with my guys. Coach told me to go out there, play my game and be patient. I did that, and to give my team a boost when they needed me feels amazing."
The Blue Raiders overcame foul trouble and the athletic one-two punch of the Bears' Tray Curry and Quante Berry to avenge their only loss of the season in the district championship game.
Junior Kley McGowan caught fire once again in the third quarter for eight of his 14 points, which included a pair of 3-pointers, one of which gave Cleveland (32-1) its biggest lead at 38-26.
"All year the third quarter has been Kley's time to takeover," Tucker said. "He always comes up with either a game-changing charge or makes some big-time shots. He has been consistent all year, and I am proud of that kid."
Curry scored 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting, but the Bears (23-6) were unable to pull off a second straight win in the rivalry series. His back-to-back buckets cut the deficit to 61-59 with a minute left to play, but Michael Dale hit two free throws with 48 seconds left. Soon after, Whaley helped force a pivotal Bradley Central turnover.
As Wood stepped to the line to ice the game with free throws, he pumped up the Cleveland fans who wore green in honor of his late brother Jay Mee.
"We still have a bigger goal and want to win state, but I know my brother is up there smiling and proud of us," said Wood, who scored 17 points. "I am so proud of Antonio, too. We see how much of a benefit he is to our team in practice all the time, and tonight he showed his importance to everybody."
In state sectionals, Cleveland will host Siegel (25-8) at 7 p.m. Monday, the same day Bradley Central is at Blackman (25-3).