CHATTANOOGA — There was no second-half turning of the tide for the Cleveland Lady Raiders as they faced off against the defending state champion Girls Preparatory School for the Best of Prep Christmas Tournament championship Friday evening.
What was there for Cleveland was heart, passion and a drive to win that pushed GPS harder than many in the area expected and provided an exciting shootout for the packed Steele Gymnasium on the Chattanooga School for Arts & Sciences campus.
“We have put so much time in talking about playing hard every possession and from the tip to the final buzzer. We made them [GPS] work really hard, but they are a great team. I still feel like we accomplished what we set out to do,” stated Lady Raider head coach Mindy Kiser.
The game started fast, and it was apparent to everyone seated in the CSAS gym that this was going to be a fast-paced, physical game.
Cleveland had things knotted up late in the first quarter when GPS standout Simone Busby took over and led her Bruisers on a 5-0 run to steal the momentum.
Yet, the Lady Raiders never let a big play or a scoring streak defeat them and they continued to battle hard, proving they deserved a shot at the championship.
It was the Raiders who ran to start the second, scoring six straight unanswered points and tying the game again, but GPS had experience on their side and rallied to make it 24-16 Bruisers going into the half.
Cleveland had hoped to exploit a Bruiser tendency to get into foul trouble early, yet GPS played smart defense and the foul trouble instead ended up affecting the Raider bench.
“We were trying to get inside all game and hopefully get them in some foul trouble early. We went strong to the basket, but sometimes it doesn’t always go your way,” Kiser stated.
Coming out of the half, both teams were hungry for the win, and while the Raiders never managed to creep back they continued to push and find ways to get on the scoreboard.
Freshman Hallea McClendon provided a spark off the bench for Cleveland putting up eight points and helped establish a Raider paint game.
When the pressure in the paint caused the GPS defense to collapse in, sophomore sharpshooter Norizah Berry took over draining three second-half 3-pointers and once again leading the team with 14 points.
Despite the Bruiser onslaught, Cleveland continued to provide a fast-paced, exciting game, and every time GPS scoring spiked, the Raiders found a way to mount some type of answer.
In the end, a highly experienced and talented team walked off the floor with an early season championship, while a younger team found their voice and proved to a packed gym that they can play with the best in the area.
“I am extremely pleased with how we performed in this tournament. When the bracket came out we looked at in and thought we had a good chance to be here tonight. This was a great opportunity. We won’t get a chance to face many GPS-caliber teams throughout the year and it will make us a better team,” explained Kiser.
“We played hard almost every possession this entire tournament, and that’s all we can ask of these girls. As a program, I feel we took a step forward tonight.”
Along with Cleveland’s second place finish, Berry and Qetuwrah Abdullah-Muhammad were honored with all-tournament team nods for their outstanding play.
Girls Preparatory School 11 13 17 18 — 59
Cleveland 6 10 13 13 — 42
Bruisers (59) — Simone Busby 23, Chadarryl Clay 14, Farris 6, Kemp 8, Perry 6, Bandy 2, Jackson.
Lady Raiders (42) — Nora Berry 14, Scoggins, A. Abdullah-Mohammad 6, Q. Abdullah-Mohammad 7, Anderson 6, Ware, Capron, McClendon 8.
3-point Goals: GPS none; Cleveland 4 (Berry 4).
Free Throws: GPS 9-of-19; Cleveland 8-of-18.
Records: GPS 12-1; Cleveland 7-7.