A long and sometimes grinding regular season of basketball is now just a memory as the 10 schools in the NJCAA/TCCAA REGION VII Conference turn their collective attention toward the Junior College version of March Madness at Motlow State, the host site for the upcoming Conference Tournament.
The Cleveland State Cougars will be seeded third, will get a first-round bye and open tournament play on Thursday at 9 p.m. against sixth seeded Southwest Tennessee. The Cougars finished the regular season strong, winning six of their last eight games including four big conference games in a row to capture the third seed.
Although the Cougars have topped the Saluqis twice during the year, 84-74 at home in November and 71-65 in Saluqi-land, the Cougars know full well it will be a big challenge to win for a third time. Ironically, both the Cougars and Lady Cougars finished with identical records at 18-9 overall and 11-7 in conference play.
The Lady Cougars wound up regular season play in a tie for third place, but will be the fourth seed in the tournament due to the tie-breaker system. An old rivalry will be renewed Wednesday afternoon (5 p.m.) when the fifth seeded Chattanooga State Lady Tigers provide the opposition. The two teams split regular season matchups with both losing on home hardwood. Cleveland State took the first game in December, 63-48. Chattanooga State returned the favor in February, 59-46.
“It’s going to be a challenge, Southwest is a very good team,” explained Cougar coach Lee Cigliano. “It really comes down to who wants it the most at tournament time. At this point in the season you are playing for a championship and a chance to go to the National Tournament. Our guys realize that, and I think they are up for it.”
“There are a lot of different parts to the season because it is so long,” the coach continued. “When you get to tournament time, you have to turn the page from the regular season because it is do-or-die at this point, and I think our guys are excited about our opportunities and ready for the challenge.”
Filling out the rest of the bracket on the men’s side will be the host team and No. 1 seed Motlow State Bucks, who start play Thursday against the winner of the play-in game on Tuesday featuring ninth-seeded Dyersburg and eighth-seed Chattanooga State. Second seeded Volunteer State will play the winner of the Walters State (No. 7) Columbia State (No. 10) game. The four/five game will pit Jackson State and Roane State.
“This team has overcome a lot throughout the year,” said Cigliano. “We’ve had injuries to key players, we had a couple of players decide not to come back after Christmas. But I’m proud of the way our guys have hung tough and stayed focused through adversity and stayed together as a team. We started the year off great, went through a down period with the injuries and other things and we’ve played fairly well toward the end of the season. We have only had at the most, eight players in practice since early January, and that is a challenge in itself, but we are relatively healthy going in so hopefully we can carry that right over into the tournament.”
On the ladies’ side, top seeded and nationally seventh-ranked Walters State will open play against the winner of the Columbia State (eighth seed) and Jackson State (ninth) game. The winner of the seventh-seeded Roane State and 10th seeded Motlow State game will advance to play second-seeded Volunteer State on Wednesday. Southwest Tennessee (third seed) and Dyersburg State (sixth) will hook up in the other game in the bracket.
The Lady Cougars are hoping to make a long run through the tournament and have gathered a considerable amount of momentum to finish the regular season by entering the tourney with a five game win streak.
“I’m very pleased with the way that we finished out the season with five big wins in a row,” stated Lady Cougar coach Dan Lumpkin. “It started with a big win on the road at Roane where we were behind the whole game and found a way to win it and it continued on a tough road trip to West Tennessee. I like the way we are rolling going into the tournament and I feel the girls are confident as well, so hopefully we can use that and make a good run.”
Injuries have taken a toll on the Lady Cougars as well late in the year, as they will be without two key cogs in the wheel.
“We lost Tre’Ketta Bonds to a knee injury and Shadave Taylor to an injury as well, and those two losses hurt,” said Lumpkin. “But the positive is that the other girls have stepped up, especially Me’Lisa Martinez and Jasmine Davis in the last four games. Everyone has stepped up their game down the stretch and that is what we had to have to be successful.”
All Cleveland State games can be watched live via the Cougar Sports Network by going to the Cleveland State website and following the links.