CLEVELAND, Tenn. – Bradley’s back.
Back in the TSSAA girls state basketball tournament, that is.
It wasn’t easy nailing down a spot in the Class AAA bracket, but man was it sweet when the final horn sounded.
In a matchup of state-ranked powerhouses, Bradley Central withstood Blackman’s furious fourth-quarter comeback to post a 55-46 sub-state victory over the Lady Blaze on Saturday in a crowded, boisterous Jim Smiddy Arena and earn their first trip to the state tournament since 2000.
“This is unbelievable,” said Bradley’s 6-foot-1-inch junior post Brooke Copeland, who scored a game-high 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds. “It’s definitely the best feeling I’ve had playing here at Bradley.”
Bearettes coach Jason Reuter will be in Hermitage, Tenn., for Sunday afternoon’s state tournament draw to determine his team’s quarterfinal opponent on Wednesday. First-day Class AAA games are scheduled for 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time at Middle Tennessee State University’s Murphy Center.
Bradley’s Bears will host Siegel on Monday at 7 p.m. with a spot in the boy’s state tournament on the line. The Bears’ star player is Bryce Copeland, Brooke’s older brother.
Also on Monday, Ooltewah’s Owls will travel to play top-ranked and undefeated Riverdale at 8 p.m. Eastern Time.
This marks just the third time the Bearettes (29-2), ranked No. 5 by MaxPreps.com, have made a state tournament appearance since their last championship under legendary coach Jim Smiddy in 1976. Bradley went to state in 1995, losing to Shelbyville, 53-43, in the title game, and returned in 2000.
The years of frustration and disappointment gave way to pandemonium after the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock Saturday night.
“You could tell by the atmosphere and the crowd in here that the Bearettes family has been waiting a long time for this,” said Bradley coach Jason Reuter, 88-10 in three seasons. “I’ve got to thank these fans. They gave our kids a lot of emotion and made it hard on Blackman.
“These kids showed a lot of heart all year and still haven’t lost in the state of Tennessee.”
Bradley Central’s two losses came against defending state champions – Millbrook, N.C., and Wesleyan out of Norcross Ga., in out-of-state events.
Ironically, Bradley is the only team other than nationally ranked Riverdale to beat Blackman (26-5), No. 3 in the MaxPreps.com rankings, this season.
“They stepped up and hit enough free throws late that kept us from getting it down to a one-possession game,” Blackman coach Chad Hibdon said. “It stayed a two or three possession game most of the second half.”
Blackman, which beat Bradley, 44-27, in the 2011 sub-state, jumped out to a 13-5 lead – 6-3 freshman Jazz Bond scored six points – only to have the Bearettes run off eight straight points to tie the game at 13-all.
Senior Kayla Withrow, 5-for-5 on 3-pointers, made her first 3, 6-2 junior Rebecca Reuter made a layup and Copeland hit a running floater off the glass and then a free throw for a three-point play capping the quick scoring burst.
The game was an all-out dogfight for the remainder of the first half, with Bradley going into the locker room with a 29-24 lead.
The Lady Blaze went scoreless over the final 4:36 of the second quarter. Bradley only managed five points in that same span – Whitney Donaldson’s driving layup and Withrow’s 3.
Copeland was responsible for all 11 Bradley Central points in the third quarter, and they proved to be game-changing.
Copeland started with a flat-footed layup from underneath.
She nailed a 6-foot clothesline shot from the side.
She made a layup, got fouled and missed the ensuing free throw.
She put up a put-back bucket.
She canned a 6-foot running bank shot off the glass, was fouled and made the free throw to give the Bearettes a 40-27 lead.
Blackman’s only point in the final 4:14 of the quarter came on freshman Crystal Dangerfield’s free throw with 35.5 seconds on the clock and the Lady Blaze trailed, 40-28, heading into the fourth quarter.
“I knew I had to come out in the second half and play to my ability in hopes of giving us the cushion we needed and give the leadership we needed,” Copeland said. “We came together and we pulled it out.”
While Copeland went off, the Lady Blaze stumbled out of the gate after halftime.
“We came out complacent in the third quarter,” said Hibdon, 131-92, in eight seasons. “We weren’t pushing the ball and they extended their zone. They’re big and long and good at that. We got some nice shots but they were rattling in and out. But once they stretched their lead out a little bit, our kids still fought to make it a game at the end.”
To show the effectiveness of the Bearettes’ 2-3 zone, Blackman scored 11 points in the second and third quarters. Reuter’s decision to switch from man to zone came at the start of Bradley’s 8-0 first-quarter run.
“I didn’t plan on going to the 2-3 that quick,” Reuter said, “but we got into it and saw it was working and the old saying is if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Our 2-3 gave them problems.”
The Bearettes had to dig deep to withstand Blackman’s fourth-quarter rally.
Dangerfield made two free throws after Rebecca Reuter was flagged for a technical at the 7-minute mark. It was Reuter’s fourth foul.
Leading 41-34, Withrow hit a 3, Reuter made a put-back and Withrow dropped in two free throws as the Bearettes outscored the Lady Blaze, who were ranked nationally by USA Today until a week ago, by 7-1 to take a 48-35 lead with 3:08 remaining.
The Bearettes looked like a sure bet to win. Blackman wouldn’t go away, though.
Dangerfield made two free throws after Reuter drew her fifth foul – and second technical of the fourth quarter – and then dropped in a lane floater and a layup, and Bond’s put-back with 53.4 seconds left drew the Lady Blaze within 48-44.
Reuter’s foul woes could be a problem in the state tournament. TSSAA rules stipulate that if a player draws two technicals and is ejected, he or she is ineligible to play in the next two games.
Coach Reuter left the arena Saturday night hoping the TSSAA would take a close look at his daughter’s predicament. A ruling is expected on Monday when the TSSAA will receive a report from game officials.
If both fouls are considered unsportsmanlike conduct, Rebecca Reuter will draw a two-game suspension and will be ineligible for Wednesday’s state tournament game. Should the Bearettes lose the penalty would carry over into the 2013-14 season opener.
“I definitely didn’t make some good decisions tonight,” Rebecca Reuter said, “but we showed we’re the more experienced team and we worked harder. I’m really proud of everybody sticking with it and not giving up the lead when they came after us.”
Bradley had reasons to sweat the outcome throughout the final hectic three minutes because it went 2:16 without scoring before Brandi Whitted made two free throws to end the drought with 50.8 seconds left.
Six-foot sophomore Alex Johnson, fouled by Copeland, made both free throws and Blackman was down, 50-46, 10 seconds later.
But, those were Blackman’s final points.
Over the last 37.9 seconds, Donaldson hit two free throws and Copeland made four as smiles on Bradley players grew wider across their faces, knowing that victory was within their grasps.
For the game, Bradley was 17-of-25 from the free-throw line. The Bearettes, who have won 11 straight games, hit 17-of-37 (45.9 percent) of their field goals, including 5-of-8 behind the 3-point arc.
A telling stat for Blackman: 2-of-20 3-point shooting.
“We knew what we wanted tonight and went out and got it,” Withrow said. “We lost to two out-of-state teams this year, but this was the game that mattered to us. We were confident coming into the game and weren’t going out without a fight.”
Withrow finished with 18 points.
Reuter managed just four points, but did grab 12 rebounds before picking up her fifth foul.
Dangerfield led Blackman with 15 points, Bond scored 12 – six in the first 4 minutes, 40 seconds of the game – and Johnson finished with 11 before fouling out with 1:39 left.
Saturday’s victory capped unfinished business for the Bearettes, who won District 5-AAA, district tournament and Region 3-AAA tournaments titles all three seasons under Jason Reuter. They lost sub-state games in 2011 to Blackman (44-27) and 2012 to Lawrence County (44-43 in overtime).
Now, the Bearettes have a sub-state title to go along with all the program’s other trophies gathered up in Reuter’s three years at the helm.
It’s starting to look like the good old days – again.
The Bearettes’ mood will be even better if Rebecca Reuter’s name is in the scorebook on Wednesday.
Blackman 17 7 4 18 – 46
Bradley Central 20 9 11 15 – 55
Blackman (46) – Pollock 8, Crystal Dangerfield 15, Alex Johnson 11, Jazz Bond, Norris, Miller, Allen, Killings.
Bradley Central (55) – Kayla Withrow 18, Donaldson 4, Whitted 4, Brooke Copeland 23, Reuter 6, Carroll.
3-Point Goals: Blackman 2 (Pollock); Bradley Central 5 (Withrow 5).
Boys Sub-State Schedule
Siegel at Bradley Central, 7 p.m.
Ooltewah at Blackman, 8 p.m.
Times Eastern Standard
(E-mail Larry Fleming at larryfleming44@gmail)