Connally hosted the first big game in District 18-4A play as rival La Vega came into the Cadets’ gym for the opener.

Guard Zailin Cleveland made sure the Cadets started the way they wanted as he took over late and lifted Connally to a 53-49 victory on Friday night.

La Vega led 47-45 before Cleveland came alive, scoring six straight points to take Connally from a two-point deficit to a four-point lead.

Cleveland, who finished with a game-high 22 points, started his own personal surge by hitting a free throw. He followed that with a jumper that put the Cadets in front, 48-47 with 1:43 remaining in the fourth quarter.

La Vega attempted to push the ball up the court and get a transition basket to retake the lead. Instead, Cleveland stole a pass and streaked to the basket for a fast-break layup and a three-point lead with 1:27 left. The Cadets’ leader finished his 6-0 run by splitting a pair of free throws for a 51-47 edge.

Pirates guard Marcus Willis went to the basket for a layup to cut Connally’s lead to 51-49 with 43 seconds to go. But the Pirates struggled to get an open look at the end and lost on their rival’s home court.

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Connally’s Tucker Je’juan Forward catches the inbound pass against La Vega’s Jordan Rogers.

Connally’s JeJuan Forward posted a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, joining Cleveland in double figures scoring. Forward finished off an 8-for-10 performance from the free-throw line by nailing a couple from the stripe for Connally’s final points with 29 seconds left.

Willis led La Vega with 12 points and backcourt mate Jordan Rogers added 9 for the Pirates (8-6, 0-1 in 18-4A).

Connally (9-8, 1-0) overcame a slow start with the late rally on its home court.

La Vega established a 9-3 lead after the first quarter and the Pirate stayed in front 30-23 when the teams went to the halftime locker room.

Basketball fans who arrived during the varsity girls’ game, which preceded the boys, found a line to get into the Connally gym, which was already at capacity.

The Lady Pirates and Lady Cadets put on a good show of their own for the full house.

La Vega guard Kaela Sawyers nailed a 3-pointer from near the top of the key to coax a roar out of the visiting stands and put the Lady Pirates ahead, 47-46, with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter.

But Connally answered as guard Miannah Little got to the free throw line and sunk a pair with 35 seconds left.

Little then iced a 50-47 victory with a layup on an assist from Heaven Lang-Tucker.

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