OAK RIDGE NORTH — Magnolia established a lead early and made free throws late to top Cleveland 54-46 on Saturday in the Region III-5A bi-district round at Oak Ridge High School.

The win sends the Bulldogs (17-10) to the area round after first-round losses the past two seasons. Magnolia last made the second round in 2018 and this is the fourth area appearance for the program overall.

“It feels great,” Magnolia senior Connor Lindvall said. “We’ve lost the past two years by only a few points and it was rough. Both losses — they were big-time. To come out here and win, it means everything to all of us, especially the seniors.”

Magnolia will have to wait until Monday to know its area round opponent. It will be either No. 17 Pflugerville Hendrickson or Austin Crockett, which won a tiebreaker game Saturday to earn a playoff spot. The area round game will take place mid next week.

“This is what we do all this for, is trying to win championships and playoff games,” Bulldogs coach Derek Cain said. “We know once we get in, we have a chance to beat anybody. No matter who we play, our kids are tough enough to have a chance.”

Despite having a healthy advantage in fouls called against it, Magnolia had a 19-8 lead after the opening quarter Saturday.

The Bulldogs had seven fouls in the first eight minutes and Cleveland (11-13) was in the bonus after just six minutes of play.

“It was tough,” Cain said. “(Cleveland) was playing aggressively so you’ve just got to tell the kids to control what they can control, worry about their game. They weren’t complaining about it, they just kept playing tough basketball. Sometimes you have to grind out ugly wins like that.”

A Lindvall 3-pointer with about six seconds to play in the frame gave Magnolia its first double-digit lead of the night. Lindvall had 16 points while Andrew Bauer led with 17.

In the second quarter, the Bulldogs pushed their lead to 32-17 on a Lindvall 3-point play with 4:28 to play. Tom Osborn had a couple buckets in the frame as well, and Bauer and Heston Kelly hit a 3-pointer apiece.

Cleveland closed the quarter on a 9-2 run and trailed 34-26 at the break. AJ Wheeler drove down the court in the closing seconds of the half to cut the margin to single digits. Wheeler had seven points in the quarter while Jonathan Aguilar led with nine, including a pair of 3-pointers.

Wheeler finished with 10 points and Aguilar had 12. Devontae Robertson led Cleveland with 15, 11 of which came in the second half.

In the third quarter, points were hard to come by. Magnolia broke the scoreless streak at 5:34 with an offensive rebound and bucket from Osborn. Cleveland’s first points came via a Robertson 3-point play with 4:51 to go.

Cleveland went on to trim the deficit to 36-30, but Magnolia finished the quarter with a pair of 3-pointers, first from Bauer at 1:07, then from Lindvall off an inbounds pass at the buzzer.

“It was all about getting stops,” Cain said of the team’s bend-don’t-break play. “When (Cleveland) went on runs and we weren’t scoring, we were able to bear down and they weren’t getting anything at the rim and we weren’t allowing second-chance shots. It was really all about our defense getting stops when our offense was stagnant. Then we had players make plays at the end.”

In the fourth quarter, Cleveland again trimmed the margin to six points but couldn’t get closer. With 3:15 to play, Aguilar hit a 3-pointer to make it 44-38. Later, with 2:10 to go, a bucket from Robertson made it 46-40.

Once Cleveland had to foul, Magnolia closed out the game. Bauer and Lindvall were both 4 for 4 in the last the 1:18 of the game to help the Bulldogs finish.

“It feels amazing,” Lindvall said. “I don’t want to go home and I don’t want to leave basketball. It feels great to keep playing.”

jmaskulinski@hcnonline.com

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