WACO — With a coveted playoff berth hanging in the balance, the Cleburne Yellow Jackets punched their ticket to the postseason in dramatic fashion by scoring the final 10 points of the game at Waco University for a 50-40 win Tuesday night.
With Joshua beating Corsicana, 58-41, earlier in the evening, Cleburne faced a must-win situation to clinch a playoff berth, and the Jackets came through in the clutch and finished strong with a 15-2 run over the final 5:04 of action.
Cleburne improved to 5-7 in District 14-5A, tied with Joshua for fourth place, but the Jackets receive the postseason berth after owning the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Owls.
“We've got eight seniors on this team and they've been through some ups and downs,” Cleburne Coach Jeff Bush said. “Last year was a tough year for them winning only one game [in district]. I know they dealt with a lot of injuries and stuff that derailed what they were trying to do, but they've just kept fighting.
“I know it sounds crazy to get so close in only seven or eight months with a group of kids, but I love them. So watching them earn this opportunity, it's special. It's special to me. It's special to my wife. Having Coach [Ethan] Anderson has been unreal. Him being from Cleburne, it's special to him, too.”
Moments like these are the reason why we do what we do! You knew you had to get a road win in a tough environment to prolong your season and you never lost sight of that goal. Enjoy this win and tomorrow let’s get ready for Round 1. #BeRelentless @Coach_JBush24 pic.twitter.com/jenLramoBt— Cleburne Hoops (@CleburneHoops) February 19, 2020
The win clinched Cleburne's third playoff berth over the past four seasons, but the first for this senior group as primary contributors.
“It means a lot because we were predicted to get last in district,” said Cleburne senior Nash Mosoba, who had a monster performance Tuesday. “Just to see how far we came, I still can't believe it. I'm full of excitement.”
In Tuesday's win at Waco University, Cleburne led through the majority of the contest, including grabbing several double-digit leads. But Waco University battled back late in the third quarter to tie it going into the fourth, and then the Trojans took a 38-35 lead with 5:28 lead to play, their first lead since 6-5.
From there, however, Mosoba hit a pair of free throws to tie it and senior point guard Isaak Cunningham went coast-to-coast and scored in traffic for a 40-38 lead with 4:33 left.
After the Trojans tied it back up with 3:40 remaining, Cleburne went back in front on a Mosoba basket with 2:50 to play. A couple of possessions later, University was looking for the tying bucket but the two teams fought for control of the loose ball before Cunningham made a nice hustle play to force a Trojan turnover.
Then Cleburne senior guard Blane McElroy — who was 1-for-10 from 3 at the moment — buried a 3-pointer to push Cleburne's lead to 45-40 with 52 seconds left. McElroy followed that up with 3-of-4 free throws down the stretch to close it out.
“Blane was off all night,” Bush said. “That probably was the worst he's shot the ball all year. And in a two-point game, I'm still thinking we want him shooting it. There's a lot of kids that would've turned that shot down, but he hits that huge one. Then he's the guy hitting free throws down the stretch.
“The way he played and shot the ball in the fourth quarter was almost like a microcosm of our season; it was struggle, struggle, struggle, then we find a way to finish it when we need to.”
While McElroy hit the clutch shots late to pull away in the final minute, Mosoba did the heavy lifting from the opening tip.
Mosoba finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds as he made 11-of-15 shots from the field. The rest of the team made just 6-of-31 shots.
“I have a mentality where I feel like people can't guard me,” Mosoba said. “If I get the ball, I just want to score.”
“We talk about it all the time and our hashtag on Twitter is 'be relentless,' and he embodies that,” Bush said of Mosoba. “He just continues to attack and attack and make big play after big play for us. I've said it before, but he's one of the best players I've ever coached, and I've coached some really good ones. … He continues to make big plays for us and help us get to where we need to be.”
Overall, Cleburne shot 37 percent and committed just 11 turnovers while holding Waco University to 29 percent shooting. Despite struggling in the rebound battle early, Cleburne only finished minus-four on the glass.
In addition to Mosoba's 27 points, McElroy finished with 14 points and five rebounds while Cunningham added six points. Laukuk Lanki grabbed six rebounds and handed out four assists off the bench.
Cleburne's 1-13 start to the season now feels like a long time ago as Bush, in his first year at the helm of Yellow Jacket hoops, preached patience early on, and it paid off.
“It's just awesome,” Bush said. “You and I talked right before the year started and you said how there wasn't very high [outside] expectations, and you asked what was ours, and ours was, 'get to the playoffs.'
“We got our butts whipped right out of the gate by about 40 points and that kind of seemed to be the norm. I told the guys, our goal is to be playing our best basketball by the time we get to our first district game against Midlothian.”
After the rough start to the season, things started clicking around the Christmas break leading into district play. And, despite a few tough losses in league action, the Jackets accomplished their No. 1 goal before the season of clinching a playoff berth.
“We got to Christmas break and we started playing better,” Bush said. “Midlothian is so good and they've got stuff we can't really combat, but I felt like we competed very well at their place. Then as we got into games against teams we can compete with because they don't have four 6-foot-7 kids, we really fought. I didn't feel like there was a single night we quit.”
Mosoba said the team's improved chemistry helped the Jackets endure some tough times that made them stronger as the season went on.
“Just to see how far we've come with our chemistry and becoming brothers,” Mosoba said. “That's what we are is we're brothers and we have that close bond. I think that was the centerpiece we needed.”
CLINCHED!!! pic.twitter.com/OStGZqskKh— Cleburne Hoops (@CleburneHoops) February 19, 2020
Now, Cleburne (9-23) will face No. 1-ranked Lancaster (31-1) in the Class 5A bi-district playoffs (details not immediately set).
Just as Cleburne opened the season as an afterthought in the playoff picture, the Jackets will be heavy underdogs going up against one of the top-ranked teams in the nation.
But Mosoba said they've only got one focus:
“Winning,” he said. “That's all.”