CLEVELAND, Tenn. – Shoving aside a lackluster first 16 minutes, Ooltewah responded with tenacious defense after halftime and beat rival Bradley Central, 44-30, Friday night in District 5-AAA high school basketball action at Jim Smiddy Arena.
“We preached all week this was for the championship tonight,” said Owls coach Jesse Nayadley, 111-14 in five seasons at Ooltewah and 8-5 against the Bears. “I didn’t tell the guys about a coin toss or anything. If they found out about it, they found out about it. We came up here to win a tough game.”
The Owls nailed down the regular-season title and No. 1 seed for the district tournament to be played at Cleveland High School starting next Wednesday with a coin toss with the No. 2 seeded Cleveland Blue Raiders at a coaches meeting earlier this week. That gives Ooltewah a bye into the semifinals and a matchup against the Walker Valley-Rhea County winner on Feb. 16 at 6 p.m.
With the bye in the district tourney, Ooltewah also earned a spot in the Region 3-3A tournament, also to be hosted by the Blue Raiders.
In girls varsity action, Bradley Central completed its second straight regular season unbeaten in district play with a convincing, 69-29, rout of the Lady Owls. In two meetings, the Bearettes walloped the Lady Owls by a combined 88 points.
Coach Jason Reuter’s Bearettes have won 37 consecutive games against district foes in regular season and tournament play. Bradley’s last league loss was to Walker Valley, 52-49, on Jan. 18, 2011, Reuter’s first year as the head coach.
The Owls (16-8, 10-2) scored the game’s first points on a 3 by Tucker Bass, starting for Jacqueze Robinson, who was suspended for one game earlier in the day for a violation of team rules.
Bass ignited a decisive third-quarter rally with eight straight points – he made two more 3s – that gave Ooltewah its first lead (24-23) since his game-opening shot from the left corner, which Bradley answered with 13 unanswered points.
“Coach told me before the game I was going to start and I needed to hit some shots,” Bass said. “If someone goes down or if someone is suspended, then someone else has to step up. It was me today. I helped the team get the win and we’re district champs. That feels great.”
The spurt eventually extended to 12-2 and gave the Owls a 28-23 lead.
Bass, a 6-foot-2-inch senior guard, then got into the defensive action by blocking a Baylor Terrell shot during a Bears scoring drought when Ooltewah stretched the blitz to 19-4 and the lead to 35-25 with 13.4 seconds left in the quarter.
“Tucker can do that,” Nayadley said. “He hit some big shots. We’ve got all the confidence in the world in Tucker and when he’s playing defense he’s good for us because we know he can score.”
Bradley Central (14-11, 8-4) couldn’t – score, that is.
The Bears, who dropped a 57-51 decision at Ooltewah on Dec. 11, scored nine second-half points and finished with the lowest offensive production in coach Kent Smith’s 17-year tenure. Their previous low under Smith, who has a 422-143 record, came in a 60-32 loss at Oak Ridge on Nov. 27, 2007.
“That’s the best half of defense we’ve played all season,” said Nayadley, who started out in a zone but switched to his normal man-to-man after the first quarter. “I thought the zone looked pretty good, but we trapped out of it and we’re not supposed to do that. We kept leaving their shooters open.
“In the second half our man was outstanding. We didn’t gamble. We didn’t trap. We didn’t do anything that we didn’t need to do. We just stayed in front of the basketball and made them earn everything they did. We made them earn every pass.”
The Bears made five first-quarter field goals, including three 3s, but only seven the rest of the night.
Antonio Jackson led the Owls with 15 points. Bass finished with 11 and Andrew Ware had 10.
Matt Whitmire, a 6-5 post and one of five seniors that started the game on Senior Night, led the Bears with 11 points.
Another senior, guard Bryce Copeland, the team’s leading scorer, had a season-low three points, 16.4 below his average. Copeland, considered one of the district’s best players, had two points at halftime and went into the game with 1,545 career points. His only other score was a free throw less than a minute into the fourth quarter.
Jackson defended Copeland the entire game.
“He’s a great player,” Jackson said of the 5-10 Copeland, also a standout quarterback on coach Damon Floyd’s football team. “I’m not the best defensive player, but I worked my butt off and tried hard against him.”
The Bears played without 6-0 junior guard Logan Cox, who had scored 45 points in the team’s previous three games.
“We’ve gone through a lot of internal stuff this week that I’ve never gone through before and that’s all I’m saying about that,” Smith said.
“Nine points in the second half – that’s the bottom line tonight.”
When the Owls got hot, the Bears cooled off, couldn’t buy a basket and that hurt in more ways than one.
“The more we missed shots the more we got deflated defensively,” Smith said. “Even when they went up eight or 10 points, I still felt they would keep us in the game with some of their shots. We cut it to seven and had the ball. Our shot goes in and out and they get a run-out and I could just see our guys deflate.”
Bradley had many one-shot possessions and the opportunistic Owls wiped the glass for key rebounds and turned them into baskets at the other end.
“Well,” Smith said, “they’re athletic. We have to be disciplined with possessions in our games with them and not let them get a bunch of points. We held them to 44 points and they’re a high-powered offense. It was just that our offense was awful.”
Copeland’s free throw started the fourth quarter scoring and at the other end Jackson committed an unnecessary five-second turnover by trying to dribble around Copeland several times near mid-court.
Bradley reserve Daniel Clark, a sophomore, drove the lane for a layup that sliced Ooltewah’s lead to 35-28 with 7:04 on the clock.
Jackson turned the ball over again with an errant pass, but this time the miscue didn’t cause any further damage.
The Owls’ Daaron Maston, who tweaked an ankle earlier in the night during a junior varsity game, hit a free throw with 5:45 remaining and Ooltewah outscored the Bears, 9-2, down the stretch for the impressive victory.
Bradley scored two points in the final 7 minutes 3 seconds on Clark’s shot with 55.2 seconds left.
“Every year Bradley has tough kids,” Nayadley said. “(Smith) has them tough, they do things right and they’re going to pick you apart. If we don’t match that (toughness) and we start chasing them around and letting them dictate what they want to do, then they’re going to beat us every time. We can’t play that way with them. Tonight we played them tough.”
Bradley Central girls 69, Ooltewah 29: The Lady Owls (5-19, 2-10) were within 15-13 after one period of play, but managed just 16 points over the final 24 minutes.
The Bearettes outscored Ooltewah, 37-10, in the second half and easily won their 26th consecutive game against the Lady Owls since 1992-93.
The Bearettes (23-2, 12-0), who are overwhelming favorites in the district tournament, got a game-high 20 points from 6-1 junior Brooke Copeland, who has in double figures in 23 of 25 games this season. She is the team’s leading scorer with a 16.4-point average.
Six-foot Rebecca Reuter, a junior and the coach’s daughter, added 12 points and Kaylan Withrow had 11, including thee 3s.
Copeland and Reuter have each put up double-digit performances in the same game 12 times this season.
The Bearettes have a bye into the tournament semifinals and will play the Walker Valley-Rhea County winner on Feb. 16 at 3 p.m.
The win gave Jason Reuter an 82-10 record in three years.
Senior Leondra Barrett scored 13 points to lead Ooltewah, which is seeded seventh and will play No. 3 Cleveland on Feb. 14 in the next week’s tournament.
Ooltewah 13 6 7 3 – 29
Bradley Central 15 17 14 23 – 69
Ooltewah (29) – Cooper 6, Leondra Barrett 13, Jones 1, Hall 1, Kennedy 4, Cross 4, Taylor, Featherstone, Dudas, Smith, Young.
Bradley Central (69) – Kaylan Withrow 11, Davis 6, Carroll 5, Donaldson 7, Whitted 4, Brooke Copeland 20, Delane 2, Thompson 2, Rebecca Reuter 12, Stallings, Hill, Pinnenger.
3-Point Goals – Ooltewah 1 (Cooper); Bradley Central 4 (Withrow 3, Donaldson).
Ooltewah 3 13 19 9 – 44
Bradley Central 13 8 4 5 – 30
Ooltewah (44) – Antonio Jackson 15, Andrew Ware 10, Snider 4, Maston 4, Tucker Bass 11, Presley, King, Boyd.
Bradley Central (30) – Clark 4, Copeland 3, Bentley 3, Terrell 5, Crisp 2, Cain 2, Matt Whitmire 11.
3-Point Goals – Ooltewah 4 (Bass 3, Jackson 1); Bradley Central 3 (Bentley, Terrell, Whitmire).
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)