“Not being with the team for a couple of days to prepare for this game had me apprehensive, but Chuck (Clark, longtime Bear assistant) did a great job of getting them ready. The guys came out with a bounce in their step,” remarked Smith, who was in Nashville for a few days for his father-in-law’s funeral.
Playing McMinn for the fourth time this season, the Bears jumped on their longest-running rivals early and steadily increased their lead throughout the contest for an 80-50 victory.
With the win Bradley advances to the region championship game Thursday and the TSSAA substate playoffs Monday for the first time since 2007.
“I’m real proud of our guys. We came out focused. Once we got on top, we didn’t let up,” coach Smith praised. “Our guys are very motivated and that is coming through on the court.”
The Bears (28-5) trek back up the Cumberland mountains Thursday to face Ooltewah (25-4) for the fourth time this season. The Owls blew open a one-point halftime lead for a lopsided 70-48 win over District 6-AAA champion Cookeville in Tuesday evening’s nightcap.
Bradley and Ooltewah split their two regular season games before the Bears won the district tournament title by a 62-56 tally last week.
The top two teams from District 5-AAA in the regular season and tournament will match up against Blackman (24-3) and LaVergne (19-12) in Monday’s substate. The Blaze defeated Siegel 48-44 in the Region 4-AAA semifinals last night, while the Wolverines nipped Tullahoma 68-66.
Bradley Central’s girls will put their 26-game winning streak on the line tonight against host Cumberland County in the region championship game.
Coach Jason Reuter’s fourth-ranked Bearettes (31-1) and the Lady Jets (19-14) will also be fighting for the right to host a substate game Saturday against the loser of tonight’s battle between top-ranked Riverdale (29-3) and Lawrence County (25-6).
When the teams first got the balls off the rack to warm up Tuesday evening, Bear senior Hunter Chastain took two steps and swished a 3-pointer as a sign of good things to come for the Bradley faithful.
After the game tipped off for real, junior Bryce Copeland drilled a 3-pointer from the wing just a few seconds into the contest and the Bears scored seven points before McMinn got off a shot.
With a trio of turnovers on their first three possessions, the Cherokees’ first field goal attempt didn’t come for nearly three minutes and their first made bucket hit the bottom of the net at the 4:35 mark of the opening period.
Bradley pushed its advantage to double digits (12-2) when Chastain completed an old-fashioned three-point play at the 3:14 mark. McMinn momentarily brought the difference back to eight and nine points, but once Copeland drove to the hoop for the final basket of the opening frame, the game never saw a single-digit deficit again.
The Bears led 18-7 at the first break and used a 9-0 run midway through the second frame to help stretch the difference to 35-22 at the half.
Bradley came out after the intermission and salted the victory away with a 23-8 scoring advantage in the third period as part of a 45-point second half.
Reaching the 80-point plateau for just the second time this season, the Bears ran their current winning streak to 14 games.
Four Bears scored in double figures, with two more just shy of the mark. Copeland led all scorers with 18 points, including four 3-pointers, plus he copped five steals and dished off four assists.
Senior Miles Christian drilled a trio of treys on his way to 13 points. He also cleared three rebounds, dished off three helps and swiped three steals.
Chastain helped out with 11 points, while senior point guard Justin Houston popped a pair of 3-balls in his 10-point and four assist effort. Senior Miles Morgan and junior Matt Whitmire netted nine and eight points respectively.
The Bears shot 52 percent from the floor, making 16-of-29 in front of the arc and going 10-for-21 beyond it, plus they drained 16-of-20 free throws.
Bradley’s pressure defense helped cause 24 Cherokee turnovers, plus the boys from Athens got off just 37 shots from the field, making 18. McMinn won the battle of the backboards by a 24-14 margin.
After making the state tournament field last year, the Cherokees finish the current season with an 18-13 mark.
McMinn County 7 15 8 20 — 50
Bradley Central 18 17 23 22 — 80
Cherokees (50) — Ty Jones 13, Nevins 9, Hayes 8, Davis 8, Marshall 6, Hicks 4, Simbeck 2, Versa, Arquette, McCrosky.
Bears (80) — Bryce Copeland 18, Miles Christian 13, Hunter Chastain 11, Justin Houston 10, Morgan 9, Whitmire 8, Cox 6, Contreras 2, Bentley 2, Johnson 1, Cain, Thompson.
3-pointers: McMinn 5 (Hayes 2, Marshall 2, Hicks); Bradley 10 (Copeland 4, Christian 3, Houston 2, Cox).
Free Throws: McMinn 9-of-13; Bradley 16-of-21.
Records: McMinn County 18-13; Bradley 28-5.