In only the third game of the season for both teams, the Bradley Central Bears and Cleveland Blue Raiders put on a show in front of a packed Jim Smiddy Arena that had more of a tournament feel than an early season tilt.
Kendrick Thompson's 3-pointer put the Raiders up by two with 1:19 to go and D.J. Jones hit 5-of-6 free throws with less than 30 seconds remaining to give Cleveland a 63-61 win in the first District 5-AAA game of the season for both teams.
"That is two years in a row he has shot big free throws and he has made them. But, that is what this game comes down to, final possessions," said Cleveland coach Jason McCowan afterward.
Thompson hit double figures with 13 points, one fewer than D.J. Jones and three better than C.J. Bryant.
Bradley Central's Bryce Copeland, still finding his basketball legs after a tough football season, led the Bears along with Caleb Cain with 14 points. Logan Cox ended the battle with 10.
"Caleb (Cain) is a bruiser. With what Cleveland does on defense, his position is where the open spots are a lot. Cleveland gambles a lot in a zone and the short corner is where we were running Caleb. That is where you've got to hit your spots. I was really proud of him," said Bears coach Kent Smith.
"We've got to get Logan (Cox) off (the bench) more. He got some good looks and had a couple go in and out in the second half. He's got to be a double-digit scorer for us night in and night out."
With the Raiders (3-0, 1-0 District 5-AAA) rolling shot after shot off the iron in the first quarter, the Bears (1-2, 0-1) fought to a three point lead after the first quarter and led 30-26 at halftime.
Copeland put Bradley up by six — the biggest lead for either team for the game — to open the second half. Cleveland fought back to take a 45-43 lead after three quarters.
The Bears hit 21-of-28 shots from inside the 3-point line and went 4-of-15 from behind the arc. The Blue Raiders were 6-for-25 from outside the line and 18-of-36 from two-point range. Cleveland grabbed 34 rebounds to Bradley's 28 and committed two fewer turnovers (15) than did the Bears.
"The ball game was anybody's ball game with 2:30 to go. We missed a little duck shot underneath and Bryce's (Copeland) layup goes in and out," said Smith.
The final eight minutes opened with the Bears outscoring the Raiders 9-4 to take a 52-49 lead. Dustin Little tied it at 52-all on a putback of his own missed shot before Bradley's Matt Whitmire put the Bears back out front with a basket in the paint. The lead went back to Cleveland on a Thompson 3 with 2:53 left. Taylor Bently's steal and end-to-end score gave the Bears the lead once again with just over two minutes left in the game.
With 1:19 on the clock, Thompson put the Raiders up for good with his second 3-pointer in less than a minute and a half. The Bears were forced to send Cleveland to the line after a miss with under 60 seconds left.
"He takes good shots. I thought every shot he took was a pretty good shot," McCowan said of Thompson. "I'm always telling him to keep shooting, keep shooting no matter if it goes in, you can't have a conscience. He did that and he hit a big one late to put us up 1.”
A 3-point try by the Bears with time ticking down bounced off the rim and Bradley was forced to send Cleveland's Jones back to the line where he hit his fourth straight free throw to put the Raiders up 62-56. Jones casually dropped in one more toss with 8.8 seconds left to lock up the win.
Bradley's Bentley launched in a 3 at the buzzer to make it 63-61.
"I felt like we were able to change defenses enough to get them a little off rhythm because I thought they shot it well in the first half. We were able to get big defensive rebounds and big stops and have enough composure to come back down and run good stuff and get to the free-throw line," said the Cleveland coach.
"Any time you play over here in November is just odd. This is such a tough place to play. I'm glad we played it in November and we don't have to come back. It is a really tough place to play and coach Smith does such a great job. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. Now they have to come to our place and he does a great job with adjustments."
Smith said the Bears played well in the first big game for the many new faces on the roster.
"I'm not disappointed. There are just a lot of new faces. You throw them in a game like this, I had no idea how they were going to react. I feel good about them. Even though we lost, and I don't like losing to them or anybody, but we've got a lot of stuff to build on," he said. "I didn't have a reference point with them yet. We have only played two games and that was a week ago. This was the first big game for a lot of these guys and I didn't know how they were going to react. I really feel good about them and their effort tonight. Some guys grew up. This is the third game of the year and I think I can see the big picture."
The Bears' coach also said he ideally would like to play a game like Friday night's rumble down the line a bit after he has a better feel of which way his team is headed.
"I would prefer we played them about 15 or 20 games in, but that is the way the district draw ended up this year so it was what is was. We are looking forward to playing them again. This is the first district game and it's a long year. We will get a lot better as the year goes on."
BLUE RAIDERS 63, BEARS 61
Cleveland 15 11 19 18 — 63
Bradley Central 18 12 13 18 — 61
BLUE RAIDERS (63) — D.J. Jones 14, Kendrick Thompson 13, C.J. Bryant 10, Beaty 6, Scott 3, Ware 3, Johnson 4, Brown, Bunion.
BEARS (61) — Bryce Copeland 14, Caleb Cain 14, Logan Cox 10, Whitmire 6, Bentley 9, Clark 2, Terrell 3.
3-point goals: Cleveland 5 (Thompson 2, Scott, Ware, Jones); Bradley Central 4 (Cox 2, Terrell, Bentley).
Free throws: Cleveland 9-of-12; Bradley Central 7- of-12.
Records: Cleveland 2-1, 1-0 District 5-AAA; Bradley Central 1-2, 0-1.