A 28-8 third quarter advantage sealed the victory.
“That’s really all I’d seen them play,” Saks coach Jonathan Miller said of Cleveland’s defense. “I don’t think they could match up with us. I thought we were too quick for them. I was hoping they would come out of it but they didn’t.”
Saks (15-7) advances to next week’s Northeast Regional at Jacksonville State’s Pete Mathews Coliseum. The Wildcats play Geraldine (20-11) on Thursday at 10:30 a.m. in their first regional appearance since 2009.
Cleveland started the game with 6-foot-6 senior Emanuel Terry, 6-7 freshman Khalil Johnson and 6-1 senior Micah Collum on the floor, giving Cleveland a significant size advantage. In the first quarter, the Panthers scored four of their six baskets after offensive rebounds and led 15-14.
Saks hit four 3-point baskets in the second quarter — two from Roc Green and one each from Darion Coleman and Devin Harris — and led 30-25 at halftime.
The Wildcats continued to shoot well in the third, and defensive pressure produced six Cleveland turnovers, fueling the transition attack. Green and Tre Smith each scored seven points in the third, Coleman and Harris five apiece and Daniel Heard four. Coleman, Green and Smith had one trey each.
“We just tried to speed them up. We didn’t want them to come down in the half court and be able to use their size to their advantage. We got the game really going up and down and that was to our advantage and their disadvantage,” Miller said. “They just got running up and down the floor, and our pressure got to them a little bit.”
With the tempo in their favor, the Wildcats turned a five-point halftime edge to a 25-point cushion, leading 58-33 when the fourth quarter started. It was 69-43 when Miller called a brief timeout with 1:53 remaining to finish the game with five reserves.
Green led all scorers with 21 points, including five 3-pointers, despite missing playing time with foul problems. Coleman ended with three treys among his 15 points. Heard scored 14 points, most around the basket while avoiding Terry and Johnson. Smith and Harris each had one triple. Smith scored 11 points and Harris finished with eight.
“We’ve got some guys that are shooting the ball well right now. We’re playing a whole lot better right now than we did, obviously, early in the season,” Miller said. “Really, with our team all five starters can score.”
Terry led Cleveland (20-8) with 18 points. Collum ended with 12 points.
He netted two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the only treys his team scored all night.