CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Very few people have the ability to affect a basketball game without scoring a single point, but Bradley Central’s Darien Johnson made that short list Friday night.
The senior guard chased, battled and clawed, doing everything he could to keep Cleveland junior point guard D.J. Bowles from getting the ball. Bowles finished with three points in the final eight minutes and the Bears outscored the Blue Raiders 19-7 during that span on their way to a key 58-51 District 5-AAA victory at the Raider Dome.
“Coach [Patrick] Spangler told me to just play my defense,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to get out there and get as many stops as I could for my team to succeed.
“My job on this team is to get defensive stops, take care of the ball — the little things.”
Bradley (17-5, 6-2) remains solidly in the hunt for the district title and tournament top seed. The Bears can claim that with wins over McMinn County and Rhea County next week. Cleveland (12-7, 7-3) will have to defeat Walker Valley and Ooltewah to have a chance.
The Bears held a slim lead for much of the first half, but Cleveland remained close with four ties and took a 24-22 lead into the break after a pair of Jarod Rhodes free throws with two seconds remaining.
Back-to-back 3s by Bowles — the second from about 26 feet — helped Cleveland build a five-point advantage going into the fourth quarter. Bears coach Kent Smith was forced to abandon the zone they had played all game long and switch to a man defense, with Johnson on Bowles.
With the ball out of the Cleveland point guard’s hands in the final period, other players were forced to bring the ball up and the Raiders weren’t able to get into an offense. Bowles and Rhodes, who scored all but 15 of the team’s points, were limited to a pair of free throws by Rhodes and a three-point play by Bowles in the final minute.
“I told our guys that our fourth-quarter defense won this game for us,” Smith said. “Darien is our defensive leader; when he’s in, the intensity on that side steps up.”
The stops on defense led to a flurry of layups and scoring opportunities for the Bears. Hunter Chastain had eight of his 16 points in the final period. Bradley’s offense was spread out, as Bryce Copeland finished with 15 and Justin Houston with 14. Copeland was credited with five steals and Houston with three.
Johnson finished with seven assists and five rebounds. Bowles led Cleveland with 21 points, followed by Rhodes with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
“It came down to the end, and they just out-toughed us,” Cleveland coach Jason McCowan said. “We had poor shot selection in the fourth; we normally don’t have quarters with just seven points.
“We played too well in the third quarter to let it dwindle in the fourth because of our shot selection.”