Cleveland basketball coach Jason McCowan knew he wanted the ball in the hands of Kendrick Thompson late in the Blue Raiders' District 5-AAA semifinal against Ooltewah.
Time and time again, Thompson proved why.
The senior tied a career high with 35 points, adding six rebounds and five assists, and Cleveland used a late 8-1 run to advance to their first district championship game since 2009 with a 67-60 win over the Owls. The Blue Raiders (17-7) will face Walker Valley, who defeated Bradley Central 71-59 in the other semifinal, in Tuesday's championship game.
"I knew I had to attack today," Thompson said. "My job on this team is play like I do in practice, and get my teammates better. I never thought we'd be here; people doubted us all season ... said we were one of the worst Cleveland teams, but here we are."
Ooltewah (15-10) led for most of the first half, but the teams were tied at 29 at halftime. The Blue Raiders had a 7-0 run to end the third quarter, using a Thompson layup with three seconds remaining, followed by a steal and eventual three-point play by Cantrel Ware at the buzzer to lead 46-39 after three quarter.
The Owls rallied, cutting the lead to two on a couple of occasions in the fourth quarter, but Cleveland hit some baskets down the stretch to win going away.
"We made a couple of shots early in the third quarter," McCowan said. "Once we got the lead, we put the ball in Kendrick's hands and said we were either getting a layup attempt or getting fouled. He made some good decisions out there."
Ware added 12 points for the Blue Raiders. The Owls were led by 21 from Ben Snider, with Jaymcal Johnson adding 13 and Ron King 12.
"Cleveland just wanted it more than we did. That's what it boiled down to," Ooltewah coach Andre "Tank" Montgomery said. "That hurts as a coach and as a player; you've got to want it more, and play every day. Nobody's going to lay down because you won a couple of games. We've got to learn how to handle success and finish games.
"Hopefully we'll get there, or we'll be done."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.