On a night where Cleburne ISD honored and recognized legendary basketball coach Jeff Cody, the Yellow Jackets pulled out a hard-fought win over rival Joshua, 57-53, Friday at Jeff D. Cody Arena.
In a back-and-forth contest that went down to the final seconds, the Jackets (5-18) held on down the stretch, making several clutch free throws, to pick up their first win in District 14-5A play after a tough district-opening loss to No. 19 Midlothian on Tuesday.
Cleburne coach Jeff Bush said it was the type of win the Jackets needed early on in district to give themselves a chance at competing for a potential playoff spot.
“That was huge,” Bush said. “We didn’t say it before the game, but that one you kind of need to win to be able to get in the fight. We played well last week, and, of course, we saw a buzzsaw Tuesday [at Midlothian]. The third through seven spots in our district are so open, so you have to win home games against those teams. They are a really well-coached team so it’s a good win.”
In the type of outing Bush has been looking for, the Jackets received contributions from just about everyone that saw the court — as complete of a team effort Cleburne has had to this point. And perhaps the biggest play of the game came from the last player to check into the game for Cleburne, senior Tommy De La Rosa.
With the game tied at 50-50 with just over 1 minute remaining, De La Rosa came away with a steal, which led to a pair of go-ahead free throws by senior Nash Mosoba with exactly 1 minute left. And the Jackets wouldn’t relinquish the lead.
After a back-and-forth opening half, it appeared Joshua might pull away in the third quarter as the Owls built a 36-28 lead, but Cleburne battled back as the Jackets ended the third on a 9-1 run to even things up at 37-37 entering the fourth.
Bush said watching his players battle back after trailing by eight points and then making clutch plays down the stretch are the type of things they’ve been working towards all season.
“That’s the biggest thing we’ve been looking for all year is trying to get them to keep fighting,” Bush said. “At the beginning of the year, we’d let teams get 12-, 14-, 18-point leads and it almost looked like we’d shut it down. But we stayed positive and kept fighting.
“We found the right guys to step up. Tommy De La Rosa was massive in the fourth quarter, especially defensively, and he hit two free throws. Guys made shots. Blane [McElroy] hit shots. Jake [Dobbins] hit two big free throws. Isaak [Cunningham] hit a ton of clutch free throws. Everybody stepped up, and that’s the biggest thing.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, Joshua was called for a blocking foul as an Owl defender tried drawing a charge. Joshua was called for a technical foul after the play, which gave Cleburne four free-throw attempts. The Jackets made 3-of-4, then McElroy drilled a 3 as Cleburne scored six points on that possession to turn a 41-39 deficit into a 45-41 lead with 5:03 left.
With Cleburne holding a 45-43 advantage, Joshua’s Tyler Stone converted on a three-point play to give the Owls a 46-43 lead with 3:11 left. From there, the game saw three ties over the next two minutes.
With Cleburne trailing by two with 1:14 left, Cunningham sunk two free throws to tie it before De La Rosa’s steal and Mosoba’s go-ahead free throws.
The Owls missed two shots on the next trip down, and Dobbins came away with a hard-fought rebound before connecting on two free throws to extend Cleburne’s lead to 54-50 with 36 seconds left.
After a quick Stone bucket, Cunningham hit two more clutch free throws for a four-point lead with 18 seconds left to ice it.
McElroy led the Jackets with a game-high 18 points as he made 5-of-9 from 3. McElroy hit back-to-back 3’s late in the first quarter to help turn a 15-8 deficit into a 16-15 lead.
Mosoba scored 13 points with six rebounds and three assists while Cunningham finished with eight points, three rebounds and three assists. Cunningham made 6-of-7 free throws, including his final six attempts.
Stone led Joshua with 17 points while Levi Marriot added 16 points. Brandon Ayars added 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists for the Owls.
As the final score indicates, it was a close game all around. Joshua edged Cleburne in field goal percentage, 37.8 to 35.7, while the Owls out-rebounded the Jackets, 24-21. Cleburne committed 13 turnovers while Joshua turned it over 15 times. Cleburne made 21-of-27 free throws and Joshua connected on 15-of-20.
Now the Jackets will try to build off Friday’s win over Joshua with a couple of big games this week.
“We’ve got a big week ... with Ennis and Corsicana,” Bush said. “Those will be two very athletic, well-coached teams who play good basketball. So we’ve got to be able to execute like we did tonight to be in those games as well.”
Cleburne will visit Ennis at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday.
Before the Jackets’ district home opener Friday in the new arena, Cody was honored and recognized as Cleburne athletic director Jeri Hall spoke on Cody’s impact throughout the years before Cody said a few words. And Bush said it was great to get the win on the inaugural Jeff Cody Night.
“I’ve only lived in Cleburne for a solid five or six months, but I’ve had some really good conversations with coach Cody, whether it be here at the school or we actually work out at the same place,” Bush said. “He’s been really positive with me and has been a good positive influence. It was great to get this win and get him down here with our kids after a win. It feels good, especially after however many people were here. It was exciting.”