Walker Valley proved to be that team.
Turning a No. 4 seed into a district championship, the Mustangs capped a tremendous run of three big victories in five days with a 51-41 win over county rival Bradley Central for the title Tuesday night before Raider Dome crowd that exceeded the 1,800-seat capacity, with 200 or more fans having to be turned away at the door due to fire codes.
“We were picked fifth in the preseason poll and came in here as the fourth seed, but our guys believed in themselves and have made a great run,” declared District Coach of the Year Bob Williams.
Walker Valley turned around a combined 14-38 record, including a 3-21 mark in the district the last two seasons, to post more victories (18) this season than any other 5-AAA team.
“I’m so proud of these guys, especially these seniors. They got beaten up as sophomores and were a little better as juniors last year, but they have really come together as a team this year and lived up to what I felt like they could be,” the Mustang coach praised.
Walker Valley (18-11) goes into the Region 3-AAA Tournament as the top seed from 5-AAA and will take on Warren County (13-20), the No. 4 seed from District 6-AAA. The Warriors will come to “The Stable” Saturday for a 7 p.m. tipoff.
Bradley Central (16-12) will also play at home Saturday as old nemesis Cookeville (26-7) visits “The Jim” (Jim Smiddy Arena). The Bears and Cavaliers split their two regular season meetings, both winning at home — Cookeville by a point and Bradley by 13.
In the other two region openers, Cleveland (17-11) will travel to 6-AAA champ Cumberland County (17-15), while Ooltewah (17-9) will journey to White County (19-11). The region semifinals and championships will be played back at the Raider Dome next week.
Walker Valley showed signs of what it was capable during the regular season, pushing regular season champ Ooltewah to overtime twice, a one-point loss to second-seeded Cleveland and knocking Bradley out of the first-place race with a last-second shot victory in its final regular season home game.
The Mustangs opened the district tournament with an exciting 12-1 run in the final two minutes Friday night for a come-from-behind win over fifth-seeded Rhea County and then topped that in Saturday’s semifinals when senior Caio Hysinger banked in a 50-foot desperation shot at the buzzer to upset No. 1-seeded Ooltewah.
Tuesday evening, Walker Valley broke open a one-point game early in the final period with a 9-1 run and then scored 12 of the game’s final 17 points to claim its first district crown since back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009, both of which also came over the Bears.
After five lead changes in a seesaw opening half, Hysinger was able to drive to the hoop with 10 seconds to go before the intermission to give the Mustangs a slim 17-16 edge at the break.
The tight battle continued in the third frame with Walker Valley scoring the first four points but only leading by as many at six points twice, but an NBA-range 3-pointer by Bear senior Bryce Copeland just before the buzzer trimmed the difference to just three heading into the final eight minutes of play.
A minute into the fourth period, sophomore Daniel Clark copped a steal and drove the length of the court for a fast-break basket to pull Bradley within a point.
Walker Valley senior Tucker Godfrey answered a minute later with a 3-pointer, then on the very next possession, drove the lane for another basket before capping the 7-0 run with a dish to junior Lukas Korn, who made it an eight-point difference with 5:18 on the clock.
Not willing to give up, Bradley once again fought back with a 7-2 spurt of its own with Copeland hitting back-to-back baskets before junior Taylor Bentley stole an inbounds pass and immediately put the ball through the hoop to pull the Bears within three points with 2:37 to go.
The Mustangs answered with Godfrey to Korn hookups on back-to-back possessions, the first for a baseline jumper and the other in the paint to complete a string of eight straight points by the 6-foot-5 post.
Walker Valley was able to secure its victory in the final 90 seconds with baskets by junior Austin Harwood and Godfrey, plus Hysinger going 4-for-4 at the free-throw line.
Earning all-tournament honors, Korn finished with a double-double, netting 16 points and clearing 13 rebounds.
Godfrey, who was voted to the all-district (regular season) team, and Harwood both ripped the cords for 11 points and snagged a trio of caroms each. Godfrey also handed out four helps.
Making both the all-district and all-tournament teams, Hysinger scored six of his 10 points in the opening period, plus he dished out five assists and copped a trio of steals. Senior Jackson Brownfield also earned all-tournament honors, complete a strong three-game set with 10 rebounds and a couple of blocked shots.
As a team, Walker Valley shot 51 percent from the field, hitting 19-of-33 from in front of the 19-foot arc and 2-of-8 from beyond it. The Mustangs made 7-of-9 free throws.
“Both teams played good defense. We were patient and had good shot selection, but one of the main keys for us in the second half was defensive rebounds,” stated coach Williams, whose team claimed a 20-8 rebounding advantage in the final 16 minutes, giving up just three offensive boards to the Bears.
“Korn and Godfrey have had breakout seasons for us and Caio (Hysinger) has really stepped up in the tournament and shown real leadership,” the Mustang mentor praised. “We’ve had several guys contribute and really make this a team effort.”
After having strong opening games to the tournament (a 15-point win over Cleveland and 14 over McMinn County), Bradley struggled to its second-worst offensive output of the season.
Hitting just 32 percent from the field, the Bears made just 3-of-22 3-point shots and only 15-of-34 from close range. They were also just 2-for-8 at the charity stripe.
“We didn’t deserve to win with the way we shot tonight,” declared a dejected Bradley coach Kent Smith. “You could see as the game went along that some ouf our shooters lost their confidence. We weren’t finishing our shots down low and they (Walker Valley) did. We were getting beat off the dribble there in the second half and didn’t rotate on defense like we should have.”
“The good news for us is everybody is back to 0-0 with the region, but either you win or go home,” the veteran Bear mentor remarked. “We’ve got to put this game behind us and better show up ready to play Saturday night.”
Copeland led all scorers Tuesday night with 21 points, plus cleared a half dozen caroms, but was the only Bradley player to net more than five points.
Junior Logan Cox snagged seven rebounds, netted five points and copped a pair of steals, while senior Matt Whitmire added four points and pulled down five boards.
Copeland and Whitmire made both the all-district and all-tournament teams, while Cox joined them on the latter.
District 5-AAA Boys Championship
Walker Valley 10 7 13 21 — 51
Bradley Central 7 9 11 14 — 41
MUSTANGS (51) — Lukas Korn 16, Austin Harwood 11, Tucker Godfrey 11, Caio Hysinger 10, Jackson Brownfield 2, Gabe Cartwright 1, Dustin Swafford, Logan Melton.
BEARS (41)— Bryce Copeland 21, Logan Cox 5, Matthew Whitmire 4, Taylor Bentley 4, Daniel Clark 4, Baylor Terrell 3, Caleb Cain.
3-point goals: Walker Valley 2 (Godfrey, Harwood); Bradley 3 (Copeland, Terrell, Cox).
Free throws: Walker Valley 7-of-9; Bradley 2-of-7.
Records: Walker Valley 18-11; Bradley 16-12.
All-District 5-AAA Team
Jalen Smith (RC), District MVP; Bryce Copeland (BC), Matt Whitmire (BC), CJ Bryant (C), Kendrick Thompson (C); Caio Hysinger (WV), Tucker Godfrey (WV); Antonio Jackson (O), Jacquez Robinson (O), Ben Snider (O); Quinin Versa (MC); Tucker Landreth (SD); Nick McWherter (RC).
All-District 5-AAA Tournament Team
Lukas Korn (WV), Caio Hysinger (WV), Jackson Brownfield (WV); Bryce Copeland (BC), Matt Whitmire (BC), Logan Cox (BC); Dustin Little (C), CJ Bryant (C), Andrew Ware (O), Daaron Maston (O); Nick McWherter (RC); Corey Edgeman (MC); James York (SD).