Cleveland didn't have a particularly good finish to its District 5-AAA boys' high school basketball game Tuesday at Ooltewah. But thanks to the start it had, it didn't need one.
Senior guard C.J. Bryant sparked the Blue Raiders' start with 11 of his career-high 33 points coming in the first quarter, and Cleveland went on to a 68-60 victory over the Owls.
By winning, Cleveland (15-8) tightened things at the top of the district standings. Ooltewah (14-6) fell from sole possession of first place into a tie with the Blue Raiders at 8-2 in league play.
Bradley Central is 7-2 after winning Tuesday at McMinn County. The Bears host Ooltewah on Feb. 8 in the last of their three remaining district games.
"We've struggled the last eight or 10 games with having a desire to win," Ooltewah coach Jesse Nayadley said. "We've come out and played, but there's a difference. We haven't had a killer instinct. Now we're either going to have to wake up or we're going to get put to sleep pretty soon."
The Owls twice led by one point early on, even though the Blue Raiders scored seven of the game's first eight points. Cleveland took the lead for good at 13-11 on a backdoor layup by Jahmal Johnson off a feed from Bryant, which started an 8-0 run to finish the first quarter. The largest lead in the first half was 33-21.
"I felt like our urgency was good," Cleveland coach Jason McCowan said. "We controlled the defensive backboards early. We gave up three offensive rebounds in the first half. They scored on two of the three, but I felt like we controled the defensive boards and made Ooltewah work for some tough shots."
McCowan said he warned his players at halftime to expect the Owls to make a second-half run, which they did. When Ty Presley scored in the lane on an inbounds play at 3:25 of the third quarter, Cleveland's advantage was down to 45-43.
But Cleveland's answered with a bank 3-pointer from out front by Kendrick Thompson and the lead ended up being spread back out to 13 points with a little more than five minutes to play.
"They came out with a desire to beat us," Nayadley said. "The first quarter was it, bottom line. They got up 10 or so, and that's about where it ended. We decided to play after that, but when you play a good team, that 10 is enough."
Bryant, who will decide soon whether he will play football at Tusculum or Lindsey Wilson, made six 3-pointers, one short of his career-high.
"I was feeling it," Bryant said. "I had to work on making smart shots. My teammates were a big part of it. It was a big win for us. We're back in the race. Hopefully we can finish out strong."
Bryant's previous best scoring effort was 32 in the Super 16 Christmas tournament at Bearden.
"We've seen that for about two weeks now," McCowan said. "Lately he's really come on for us. He plays 32 minutes. He handles the ball. He guards their best guy. He did a lot more than score points tonight."
Thompson scored 17 points for the Blue Raiders, and Johnson contributed 12.
Ooltewah's Ben Snider scored 15 of his 16 points in the second half before fouling out with 2:31 to play. Antonio Jackson added 13 for the Owls.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.