The Region 3-AAA semifinals.
Tipping off tonight at the Raider Dome, the girls semifinals features four 20-win teams with action tipping off at 6 as third-ranked Bradley Central (26-2) will take on the best McMinn County (20-8) team since its back-to-back region semifinal runs of 2005 and 2006. Despite a 14-20 record, the Lady Cherokees did make the 2011 TSSAA sectional playoffs, where they got beaten 102-41 by top-ranked Riverdale.
Although the Bearettes have won the last 14 meetings with their oldest rivals, McMinn County held a three-point halftime lead in their last battle before Bradley exploded for a second-half rally and a 65-39 victory. The Bearettes won the first meeting this season by a 66-48 margin.
Bradley’s 6-foot-2 “Twin Towers,” NCAA Division I prospects Brooke Copeland and Rebecca Reuter, have combined for 70 points in the wins over McMinn, but Friday night it was the guard trio of Kayla Withrow, Brandi Whitted and Whitney Donaldson teaming up to net 44 points in a 42-point victory over Cumberland County in the region opener.
Since the retirement of legendary coach Jim Smiddy in 1994, the Bearettes are 10-4 against the Lady Tribe in postseason play, having won all five of their elimination games.
Bradley is riding a string of 39 straight victories over 5-AAA opponents with current coach Jason Reuter having yet to fall to a fellow district team while posting an 84-10 record (89 percent) in his three seasons at the helm.
The other girls semifinal will also feature archrivals, as District 6-AAA champ Cookeville (22-10) and White County (20-11), which are located just 10 miles apart, square off. The Lady Cavaliers have claimed a pair of five-point wins over the girls from Sparta this season.
With a District 5-AAA sweep of the boys’ quarterfinals, the region semifinal matchups will be the same as they were for the district last week.
“That just shows how strong our district is all the way down the line,” commented coach Bob Williams, whose Walker Valley team entered the district tournament as the No. 4 seed but came away with the championship. “Ooltewah and Cleveland both winning on the road (in their region openers) at a couple of tough places to play is impressive.”
Opening the action at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Williams’ Stallions (19-11) will meet regular season champ Ooltewah (18-9), which it knocked off with a 50-foot desperation heave by senior Caio Hysinger that banked through as the final horn sounded in the district semifinals 10 days ago. The Owls won a pair of overtime battles over the Mustangs during the regular season.
“We’ve played them in some very close games this year and we’ll have our hands full again Tuesday,” commented coach Williams.
After taking their lumps the last two seasons (14-38), the Mustangs “have matured and developed into a very good team,” according to their coach. “Their sophomore year we had no seniors, so they got thrown into it early. The junior year they got better but still had trouble in the district. This year, they’ve all stepped up and gotten better.”
The Mustang starting lineup has three guys, senior Tucker Godfrey and juniors Austin Harwood and Lukas Korn, who shoot better than 65 percent from the two-point area, while senior Jackson Brownfield nets 59 percent and Hysinger 53 on 2s, plus he has drained 34 3-pointers. Godfrey and Harwood have connected on 29 long-range bombs at a 35 percent clip.
Hysinger and Godfrey top the balanced scoring attack at 11.9 and 11.6 points per game, while the other three — Korn (8.4), Harwood (8.1) and Brownfield (7.7) — aren’t far behind. Post players Brownfield and Korn bang the boards for 6.1 and 4.6 rebounds a game respectively, while Hysinger dishes out 5.3 assists and cops 1.8 steals an outing.
Including snapping a nine-game losing streak to the Owls in its last meeting, Walker Valley has won 10 of its last 13 games, including all four postseason matchups after whipping Warren County 62-46 Saturday.
Coach Bob Williams is 164-116 overall in nine seasons at the reins, including 15-11 in postseason play, while Ooltewah mentor Jesse Nayadley has won 71.5 percent (113-45) of his games in five seasons, with an 18-8 tournament mark.
After a third-place finish in the district, Ooltewah had to open the region on the road to Sparta and knocked off White County by a 76-67 score Saturday. Last season the Owls were the third 5-AAA team in four years to advance to the state tournament, while Walker Valley started the run in 2009. McMinn County made the 2011 state tournament field.
In veteran coach Kent Smith’s 101st postseason game, archrivals Bradley Central (17-12) and host Cleveland High (18-11) will meet in an elimination situation for just the fourth time in the past 17 seasons in Tuesday’s late (7:45 p.m.) game.
“The way our district is, there’s a good chance you’re going to play somebody three or four times (a season), which is always tough to do, especially on their court,” commented the winningest coach (425-144) in Bear history. Coach Smith is 9-6 against the Raiders in tournament play and 71-29 overall in the postseason.
After splitting the regular season matchups, the Bears held the Blue Raiders to their second-lowest point total of the season in a 54-39 tally in the district semis to advance to their 14th district title game and won seven region crowns in coach Kent Smith’s 17-year tenure. Bradley also won at 59-44 at the Raider Dome in mid-January, while Cleveland claimed a 63-61 victory in the district opener in November at “The Jim.”
Seniors Bryce Copeland and Matt Whitmire have been leading the Bear attack this season. Copeland, a four-year starter, is averaging 19.4 points per game, while the 6-foot-4 Whitmire has developed a deadly 15-foot jumper to help him net 11.7 points an outing. Both are also pulling down 5.6 rebounds a night.
Copeland and junior Logan Cox, who is adding nine points a game, have ripped the cords for 54 3-pointers this season, while junior Taylor Bentley has drained 26 while posting 8.2 ppg. Both Cox and Bentley are also better than 80 percent free-throw shooters, while Copeland and Bentley are both handing out an average of three assists per game.
Bradley advanced to the semifinals with a 66-56 victory over Cookeville (26-8) in Saturday’s opening round, while Cleveland had to climb the mountain to Crossville to knock off District 6-AAA champion Cumberland County (17-16) by a 54-45 margin.
“After the way we shot the other night (in the district title game loss to Walker Valley), it was important for us to come out shooting well against Cookeville, and we did,” commented coach Smith. “With the confidence we regained last night (Saturday), our guys will be ready to play Tuesday.”
Coach Jason McCowan is 105-75 in six seasons on the Raider bench, including a 17-14 postseason mark, and has directed his team to a trio of region finals and substate berths. Cleveland won the region in 2010, but lost to Columbia in the sectional, plus fell to Siegel in the substate twice after runner-up finishes in 2008 and 2011.
This season’s Raider squad has been led by all-district performers CJ Bryant and Kendrick Thompson, who both average around 15 points a game.
Coach McCowan also sang the praises of senior Dustin Little, who “does the little things that don’t show up in statistics. The ball always seems to find him and he knows what to do with it. I don’t know where’d we be without him this season.”
“We played hard on the road (in Crossville) and we feel good going into the semifinals,” the Raider mentor proclaimed. “Our last two games on our own floor, we got in quick holes and fought back but then seemed run out of gas some. We are going to have to keep our focus. We can’t get too comfortable and relaxed just because we are playing on our home court.”
Both teams have been up and down this season, as evidenced by their combined 35 wins and 23 losses.
Although they had an eight-game winning streak to start the new year, the Bears were 5-8 before it and have won just half of their eight games since.
The Raiders, on the other hand, started the season with six straight wins but then dropped six of their next nine games. After a brief four-victory run, Cleveland has split its last half dozen games.
Tonight’s winners will meet for the region title Wednesday evening at 7, while the boys’ champion will be crowned Thursday at the same time.
The four finalists (two boys and two girls teams) will advance to TSSAA substate play with the girls playing Saturday and the boys next Monday. The region champs will host a substate game, while the runner up will have to travel to Murfreesboro to face the Region 4-AAA winner.