COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – This time a year ago, Walker Valley’s basketball team left the Cleveland Raider Dome despondent and beaten.
On Tuesday at Cookeville High School, the Mustangs prepped for a joyous trip home by belting rival Bradley Central, 67-50, in the Region 3-AAA boys semifinals.
The Mustangs, who extended their late-season winning streak to 12, take a 23-9 record into Thursday night’s championship game against Stone Memorial, which edged Cleveland, 59-57, in a thriller decided by an official’s controversial foul call and Justin Simmons’ two free throws with 1.8 seconds left.
Cleveland’s Anfernee Scott tied the game at 57-all with a spin move and layup with 8.8 seconds remaining on the clock.
At the other end, Stone Memorial worked feverishly for a final shot.
Simmons, who led the Panthers with 28 points, 18 coming in the second half, dribbled through two defenders on the left side of the lane. Simmons slipped and fell down.
One referee signaled “traveling.”
A second official signaled a foul on Cleveland’s Isaiah Beaty.
The officials conferred.
The foul call stood.
Simmons went to the foul line for two free throws. He hit both to give the Panthers (26-6) a 59-57 lead.
Cleveland’s Mason Brown’s inbounds pass was picked off by a Stone Memorial defender as the clock ran out, setting off wild jubilation on the Panthers side of the gym and total devastation on Cleveland’s.
“The one ref had a walk and the other one didn’t have enough guts to call it after the guy fell down,” Cleveland coach Jason McCowan said, his voice shaken by the mind-boggling emotions of the final seconds. “He walked. The coach of the other team (Neil Capps) came up and apologized to me and said, ‘I’m sorry.’
“And those three (refs) don’t have to go in my locker room and console 15 crying teenagers who just ended their season, played their guts out and don’t understand why their season is over. That’s really troubling for me as the leader of that team.”
McCowan wasn’t through.
“You’ve got to give our kids a lot of credit, but I’m telling you if somebody out there in this world knows what to tell my kids right now they’re a genius because there’s nothing to say to them,” McCowan said. “I hate it that they don’t have any trust right now when they did everything they could, the kid falls down and (the officials) don’t have the guts to call the walk.”
Tyler Yoder’s dunk put the Panthers up 53-51 with 3:35 left.
Cleveland senior Kendrick Thompson, the District 5-AAA Co-Player of the Year who finished with a game-high 33 points, hit two free throws – he was 10 of 11 from the stripe. Stone’s Luke Matthews, who scored all of his five points in the fourth quarter, drove the lane for a layup.
Thompson countered with two free throws to again tie the game at 55-55 with 2:29 left.
Stone Memorial then went to a spread and idly stood around – the Blue Raiders were willing to sit back and watch the seconds tick off. With 32.9 seconds left, Cleveland’s Jake Gibson fouled – it was his fifth – Simmons, who calmly sank both tosses to push the Panthers back out front by 57-55.
That set up Scott’s game-tying layup and the questionable official’s call that sent Simmons to the line again.
Simmons, who made 7 of 8 free throws in the game, led the Panthers with 28 points. Yoder added 17 points.
“I tell you what,” McCowan said, “there hasn’t been a team at Cleveland High School that I’ve been more proud of than the team that battled for us tonight. Stone’s a good team and it took more than them to beat us.”
Cleveland ended the season with an 18-9 record.
Walker Valley, coming off their District 5-AAA title last week at East Hamilton High in Chattanooga, got a combined 37 points from seniors Brandon Crews and Lukas Korn.
Crews, who once scored 56 points in a game at Cleveland Christian School before transferring to Walker Valley as a junior, led the scoring attack with 20 points, including four 3s – his trademark shot.
Korn, who suffered a concussion and received a doctor’s clearance on Monday to play in the semifinal showdown against the Bears, scored 17 points. He put up 15 points in the second half.
Bradley Central (16-12), which won the first 10 games in the series against the Mustangs and came into Tuesday’s game with a 20-9 lead in the rivalry, got 18 points from senior Taylor Bentley and 15 by freshman Cole Copeland.
Crews came out of the Walker Valley locker room with a big smile on his face.
“A district championship, a 12-game winning streak and a win over Bradley in the region semifinals will make you happy,” Crews said. “We sure didn’t come into this game thinking we were underdogs. Last year we lost this (semifinal) game, but came into this one feeling like we’re the better team.”
They were on Tuesday.
Bradley Central got off to a fast start and kept the lead despite the Mustangs’ awakening through the first half – the Bears were up 26-23 at halftime.
Copeland scored the game’s first four points, Bentley scored seven straight points and Copeland came back with a drive to the hoop with 5:29 left in the second quarter to give the Bears a 17-15 lead.
The game turned on a dime in the third quarter – in Walker Valley’s favor.
Korn converted a three-point play and Crews drained a 3 that gave the Mustangs a 28-26 lead. Bradley’s Daniel Clark had a putback of Bentley’s in-close miss and the game was tied.
Korn hit two field goals and freshman Bryce Nunnelly’s tip pushed the lead to 34-28. What was an 11-2 run was extended to 16-2 when Austin Harwood made a three-point play and Nunnelly had a putback to complete a 16-2 spree that left the Bears in a 39-28 hole.
“That was a deciding factor in the game,” Korn said. “If we hadn’t made that run they could have hung in there the whole game.”
Korn’s contribution almost didn’t happen.
The 6-foot-5-inch Korn was injured in a shootaround last week and it was touch-and-go as to whether he would play.
“It was a close call,” he said.
How was he hurt?
“The shoot-around went bad,” he said. “We were joking around and I went up for a dunk and got flipped and came down and hit my head on the floor. I went to the doctor for a checkup (Monday) and he said it was OK for me to play.
“I felt like I was in peak condition and ready to play this game.”
Walker Valley coach Bob Williams agreed the 16-2 run changed the game.
“That was huge,” he said. “You don’t want to be playing Bradley from behind in the fourth quarter. I told the kids we had to get off to a good start, but we didn’t. We played bad but were down only four points. We came back and played like we had been playing of late.”
The Mustangs, who are 5-0 against the Bears at a neutral site, all in postseason play, had a 41-30 lead after three quarters and showed no signs of letting the advantage slip away.
Walker Valley was up 46-35 when Clark called for a foul and subsequent technical at the 4:40 mark of the final period.
After a teammate missed two free throws, Crews came on to shoot the technical foul shots and made both. The Mustangs’ lead was 48-35.
Walker Valley hit 11 of 12 free throws in the final 4:40 to keep the lead in double digits.
“I don’t know if last year’s semifinal loss helped us much as a motivation because this is a whole new group,” Williams said. “It’s their team. We’d go anywhere to play anybody in the position we’re in right now. We’re playing really well.”
Bradley Central coach Chuck Clark was as dejected as his players.
“They got every break,” he said of the Mustangs. “It looked like they were either a step faster than us or we were a step slower than them. I don’t know which. But when they went on that run we didn’t know how to stop the bleeding.”
The Mustangs’ experience got the better of the Bears, Clark said.
“They’ve got five seniors and at one time we had a senior, freshman, sophomore and two juniors on the floor. Our posts were in foul trouble. When you’re team is that young in the third quarter, our maturity level showed up.”
Bradley Central 13 13 4 20 – 50
Walker Valley 10 13 18 26 – 67
Bradley Central (50) – McGowan, Clark 7, Cole Copeland 15, Maroon 2, Taylor Bentley 18, McCurdy 5, Gregory 1, Morgan 2.
Walker Valley (67) – L. Melton 1, Harwood 9, Lukas Korn 17, Brandon Crews 20, D. Swafford, Herd 3, Morrow, Nunnelly, Montgomery, Hunt.
3-Point Goals – Bradley Central 4 (Bentley 2, Copeland, McCurdy), Walker Valley 5 (Crews 4, Herd).
Cleveland 11 17 20 9 – 57
Stone Memorial 18 9 19 13 – 59
Cleveland (57) – C. Ware 7, Tatum, Kendrick Thompson 33, Beaty 4, Scott 6, Brown, Vecchio 2, Muniz, K. Ware, Gibson 5.
Stone Memorial (59) – Spence 4, Tyler Yoder 17, Brandon Thomas 5, Ball, Justin Simmons 28, Mathews 5, Hill, Russell.
3-Point Goals – Cleveland 4 (Thompson 3, C. Ware), Stone Memorial 2 (Yoder, Simmons).
Bradley Central (24-5) vs. Cumberland County (28-4), 8 p.m.
Walker Valley (23-9) vs. Stone Memorial (26-6), 8 p.m.
All Times Are Eastern
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)