Having gone toe-to-toe with District 6-AAA champion Stone Memorial, the Blue Raiders appeared headed to overtime when with 1.8 second to go, a Panther player made a move to the basket, but seemingly lost his footing and slipped down.
The referee underneath the basket appeared ready to call the travel and award Cleveland the ball, however, after conferring with his partner, the outside official came to the scorer’s table and called a foul, giving the Panthers two tries to put the game-winning point on the scoreboard.
Stepping to the line was Justin Simmons, who already had 26 points in the contest and who calmly drilled both free throws, leaving a stunned Raider Nation to have to hope for a miracle. None came as, after a timeout, the desperation throw-in to midcourt was picked off and Cleveland’s season was over.
“We played our best game of the season and to have it end like that is unexplainable,” a bewildered head coach Jason McCowan said of the 59-57 heartbreaker. “I’m good friends with the Stone Memorial coach, and the first thing he said to me when we shook hands was, ‘I’m sorry,’” he said.
“Our kids gave everything they’ve got the whole game and to have the outcome taken out of their hands — it’s confusing,” he added. “We know how Coach (Kent) Smith and Bradley felt a couple of year’s ago at Blackman (in a TSSAA substate game, where a controversial technical foul was whistled during a timeout in the final seconds of a tie ball game).”
“This team has faced so much adversity this season, from losing our facility (Raider Dome) the day before our first district game, to not having TyQwan (Ware) tonight (the Raider point guard dislocated a finger in Saturday night’s victory over White County and was in a cast Tuesday),” the coach added. “Despite everything, we’ve have a very successful season.”
The loss brings the Raiders’ season to a close with an 18-9 record, including a run of 17 wins in 21 games prior to Tuesday night’s finale.
Stone Memorial, which has had 20-plus wins in all but its first season since opening in 2006-07, is now 26-6 on the campaign and riding a nine-game winning streak into Thursday’s region championship game against Walker Valley, which is 23-9, having won its last 12.
Although they missed their first three shots, the Panthers put the first half dozen points on the scoreboard Tuesday before Cleveland overcame three misses and four turnovers to finally “get off the schneid” when District 5-AAA Co-Player of the Year Kendrick Thompson dropped in a shot from the wing three minutes and 10 seconds into the contest.
Stone Memorial hit 7-of-8 field goals at one stretch during the opening period and built a double-digit lead (18-7) before Thompson drained a “stop-and-pop” jumper from the lane with 36 ticks left, and then floated in a driving shot at the buzzer to trim the deficit to 18-11.
The Raiders’ charge completed a run of a dozen straight points with Thompson draining a trio of free throws, Jonathan Vecchio putting in a bucket from the lane and Thompson drilling a 3-pointer to take the lead, all in the first 70 seconds of the second frame.
The teams traded the lead three times during the quarter before Cleveland took a 28-27 advantage into the locker room at the intermission.
The tooth-and-nail battle continued after the break with the Raiders edging up by four points on an old fashioned three-point play by Cantrel Ware at the 4:35 mark.
A few moments later, the boys from Crossville mounted a push of their own as Simmons, who scored 14 of their 19 points in the period, went on a run of three straight hoops-plus-harms for three-point plays, plus he drilled a 3-pointer all during a less than two-minute stretch to put the Panthers back in the lead with a 46-39 advantage.
Cleveland then ran off the final nine points of the frame to regain the lead (48-46) heading into the final eight minutes of play.
The Panthers tied the game with the first points of the fourth quarter and the lead changed hands seven times before its stood at 55-all when Stone Memorial called a timeout with 2:09 remaining.
Deciding to pull the ball out and let the clock run down, the Panthers held the ball near midcourt while Cleveland patiently waited. Finally resuming the action by moving the ball around, Stone Memorial drew a foul and Simmons stepped to the line to put his team ahead with 32.9 seconds to go.
After the Raiders called a timeout, they set up a play that used Thompson as a distraction and got the ball to senior Anfernee Scott, who was able to drive the lane for a hoop with nine ticks to go.
“That play said so much about this team. Here, Kendrick had already scored 33 points, but was willing to be used as a decoy to draw the attention, and then he got the ball to Anfernee for the basket,” Coach McCowan praised. “These guys are all about team, not individuals.”
With the score knotted at 57, the Panthers called a timeout to set up their final play, but when the ball was sent inside to Simmons and he made his spin move, he quickly stumbled to the hardwood and the controversy began.
Thompson just missed out on his fourth 35-point game this season, finishing with 33, including nine of his team’s 11 in the opening period and 20 in the first half. Going 10-for-11 at the charity stripe, Thompson also pulled down seven rebounds and copped four steals in the contest.
“Kendrick had a whale of a game. They threw several defenders at him and he fought them off,” declared Coach McCowan.
Scott came up with the two big fourth quarter baskets, plus went 2-for-3 at the free-throw line.
As a team, Cleveland shot 14-for-21 (67 percent) from in front of the arc, but were just 4-of-13 (31 percent) beyond it. The Raiders made 17-of-22 free throws, and won the rebounding battle by an 18-12 margin.
Led by Simmons’ 28 and 17 from Tyler Yoder, the Panthers connected on 21-of-36 (58 percent) from two-point land and were 2-for-7 from long range, plus sank 11-of-14 charity tosses.
Region 3-AAA Boys Semifinals
Cleveland 11 17 20 9 — 57
Stone Memorial 18 9 19 13 — 59
BLUE RAIDERS (57) — Kendrick Thompson 33, C. Ware 7, Scott 6, Gibson 5, Beaty 4, Vecchio 2, Tatum, Muniz, McRee.
PANTHERS (59) — Justin Simmons 28, Tyler Yoder 17, Thomas 5, Mathews 5, Spence 4, Ball, Hill, Russell.
3-Point Goals: Cleveland 4 (Thompson 3, Ware); SM 2 (Simmons, Yoder).
Free Throws: Cleveland 17-of-22; SM 11-of-14.
Records: Cleveland 18-9; Stone Memorial 26-6.