There were all sorts of moments that made the Sherman Bearcats feel the game was going to end in their favor.
They opened the game on a 10-0 run. They got two points with no time on the clock at the end of the second quarter. They had a 9-0 spurt to take a 16-point lead with 2:42 remaining.
But it took a moment at the defensive end by the Bearcats’ leading scorer, Jaylyn Cleamons, to help Sherman hold on for an 86-79 victory against Denison in District 5-5A action at Bearcat Gymnasium on Friday night that was one moment from turning into a disastrous loss.
Cleamons finished with 29 points and six rebounds yet it was his steal with just under a minute left that proved to be the pivotal play for Sherman (14-10, 3-1), which moved into a second-place tie with Rider and Denton.
“I always have confidence in these guys. But in the back of your mind you’re always worried,” Sherman head coach Marcus Klingsick said. “They had to get it done and they handled it well. There wasn’t a whole lot of panic in their eyes. If the other teams makes a shot, they usually come back with something pretty good.”
Denison (8-16, 1-4) reeled off 14 straight points, the last nine in a minute’s time, and had the ball with a chance to tie the game on a three-pointer. Cleamons was able to come away with the turnover and his lay-up with 33 seconds left made it a two-possession game and essentially sealed the victory.
Tarrence Gaines, who scored 18 points, missed the front end of a one-and-one with 16 seconds left before Nathaniel Omayebu and Curtis Gay each hit a free throw in the closing seconds.
Mykel Anderson led the Jackets with 34 points and keyed the frantic last push with a pair of buckets after steals, the last with 59 seconds remaining to pull Denison within 82-79.
“I was proud the way we battled. We were going to have to bust our butts for 32 minutes to earn the victory,” Denison head coach Chet Byerly said. “They made that run and we could have hung our heads. We knew we had to play well to get this one.”
Before that Sherman looked like it would win going away. The Bearcats rarely had a double-digit lead in the second half, outside of starting the third quarter and the big fourth-quarter run, and Denison would trim the deficit to six or five points but could never get any closer.
Then Cleamons and Jeremy Norvell were at the front of the run that turned a 72-65 lead into the 81-65 margin that all but sealed the victory. Blaise Bentsen had 18 points and 19 rebounds, Norvell finished with 13 points, eight assists and five rebounds and Rayvon Hester and Kemonte Dowdy each finished with 10 points. Hester added eight assists and Dowdy totaled four steals.
“Five guys in double figures — that’s what you want,” Klingsick said. “We’ve had a lot of games where we’ve had four. The pace was such that we were going to score points.”
Sherman scored the first 10 points and led 15-4 in the final minutes of the first quarter but Denison was able to get that margin down to seven. Gaines banked in a three-pointer and the Jackets were down just 23-19 in the middle of the second quarter but the Bearcats pushed the lead to 14 on back-to-back threes by Hester and Bentsen with 2:31 left before half-time.
Pierce Barker scored and Dontre Flowers made a three-pointer to get the deficit into single digits and Anderson made a three-pointer with four seconds left in the half as Denison was about to be down by eight going to the third quarter.
Bentsen threw a three-quarters court inbounds pass to Hester in stride, he was fouled as the horn went off and made both free throws.
The momentum didn’t carry over, however, and Denison scored twice in the first 15 seconds of the half. Zaelin Wimbish made a three to cut Sherman’s lead to four at 53-49 but the fast tempo didn’t faze the Cats, who always had an answer.
Cleamons and Norvell responded with buckets at that point. When Gaines hit a three near the end of the third to make it a three-point margin, Sherman held a 66-60 advantage after Hester connected from long range.
“We knew we weren’t out of it. They way we play, just keep attacking and good things could happen,” Byerly said. “If we could have hit a few more shots.”
Sherman has a chance to gain sole possession of second place — or even a share of first — by the start of the second half of the district schedule. The Bearcats face the teams they are tied with this week.
“It’s always tough to play at Rider and then we have Denton at home on Friday,” Klingsick said. “Those are two big games. We knew this week we had to take care of business and then deal with the big guns.”