MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Bradley Central’s Bearettes, fresh off their second consecutive Sectional victory over a Middle Tennessee prep power, drew Memphis Ridgeway for its first-round opponent in the 2014 Class AAA state basketball tournament that begins Wednesday at Middle Tennessee State University.
The Bearettes (26-5) and Roadrunners (28-3) will square off at 12:30 p.m. (Eastern Time) at the Murphy Center on the MTSU campus in the second of four Class AAA games on the opening day schedule.
The Bradley-Ridgeway winner will play the Morristown West (30-3) and Rossview (27-3) winner in Friday’s first semifinal.
“I don’t think we could ask for a whole lot more,” Bearettes coach Jason Reuter said after the first-round matchups were determined. “I’m really happy about our draw. Obviously, everyone wanted to stay away from Blackman.”
Blackman (31-1) is ranked No. 1 nationally by USA TODAY and maxPreps.com and the odds-on favorite to win this year’s title. The Blaze, as it turned out, was mandated to be in the bracket opposite Bradley Central, which goes into the tournament riding a 16-game winning streak.
Mt. Juliet (29-1), perhaps the second choice to win it all, plays Jefferson County (22-11) on Wednesday at 2:15 p.m. and Blackman takes on Houston (26-7), which split four games with Ridgeway this season. The winners of those games will be pitted in the semifinals.
There are three sets of two teams from the same region – Morristown West and Jefferson County (Region 1), Mt. Juliet and Rossview (Region 5) and Ridgeway and Houston (Region 8) – in this year’s tourney, mandating they be in opposite brackets.
With that in mind, TSSAA executive director announced at Sunday’s draw meeting that Bradley Central and Blackman also would be in different brackets.
“That was a pleasant surprise,” Reuter said. “Coming up here if you had told me we would draw Ridgeway, I would have taken it. Because (of logistics) we never get to see Memphis teams until you get to Murfreesboro. We have two days to get ready.”
Reuter left the Doubletree Hotel with a “scouting” disc of Ridgeway already in hand.
Ridgeway, making its first appearance in the state tournament in 13 years, according to third-year coach Rhonda Kendall, won 11 games to open the season, lost to MHEA (a home school program) and then reeled off 12 more victories.
According to the coachT.com website, the Roadrunners are 70-16 in Kendall three years. They beat Houston twice during the season, but lost to the Mustangs in the District 15-AAA and Region 8-AAA title games.
“Our girls are very excited because this was one of our goals when the season began – get to state and win it,” Kendall said. “I know they’ll be very determined.”
When Kendall took the Ridgeway job prior to the 2010-11 school year – she shunned the school’s overtures three times previously after ending her coaching stint at Cordova High – she was greeted by one senior and five other players who had limited playing time the previous season.
“They hadn’t won any championships for a while,” Kendall said. “Last year we won our district and a Christmas tournament and the city championship. This year we won the city title and were district and region runner-up, so we’re doing some things they haven’t done in the past and I keep reminding my girls of that.
“This is a special team that can make a statement for Ridgeway girls basketball. Hopefully, they’re not excited to just get here.”
Five-foot-10-inch forward/guard Ansley Jackson, the only senior on Ridgeway’s roster, is probably the Roadrunners’ best player. She recently signed with Old Dominion.
Other starters are junior Oreonna Brown (5-8), junior Alexus Bryson (5-5), junior Tierany Paylor (5-10) and junior post Kendra Boone (6-2). Another 6-2 post, junior Eryn Foster can come off the bench when Kendall goes with a big lineup.
Ridgeway, ranked sixth by coachT.com, defeated Bolton 64-58 in the Sectionals and their three losses were by a combined 13 points.
From limited information on Ridgeway, Reuter said the teams matchup fairly evenly.
Bradley has two “bigs” in the paint – 6-foot-3-inch Rebecca Reuter and 6-2 Brooke Copeland, both of whom rank among the top 16 all-time scorers in the Bearettes’ rich history – and the Roadrunners can put two 6-2 posts on the floor as well.
“They like to play the 2-3 zone defense and don’t pressure a whole lot,” coach Reuter said. “It sounds like they’re comfortable with a half-court game.”
Although Kendall said she doesn’t mind letting her plays used an “up-and-down” game.
While Blackman and Mt. Juliet clearly headline the tournament brackets, six of coachT.com’s top 10 teams failed to reach the state tournament. Second-ranked Science Hill, No. 3 Farragut, No. 7 Brentwood, No. 8 Columbia, No. 9 Cumberland County and No. 10 Maryville would have to buy tickets to see this year’s tourney.
The Bearettes defeated Cumberland County, 76-72, in overtime to win their fourth consecutive Region 3-AAA tournament title and set up Saturday’s Sectional showdown with Oakland. Bradley beat Oakland, 37-36, on Reuter’s 8-foot bank shot with 4.6 seconds left to secure its 27th trip to the state tournament.
“State rankings are skewed because there are people in Memphis voting on teams in East Tennessee and people voting on records and what a team may have done in the past,” Reuter said. “Maybe more than any year since I’ve been coaching girls there could be more unranked teams in this year’s tournament.
“If we hadn’t stumped our toes in a couple of games I thought we should have won, I’m sure we would have been ranked. That has no bearing on me and my team at this point.”
Without question, the Bearettes rely on Copeland and Rebecca Reuter, two players who started all four years and helped Bradley Central and Jason Reuter – he’s in his fourth year as the head coach -- compile a 114-16 record in that span.
Copeland and Reuter have both signed Division I scholarships to Florida and Middle Tennessee State, respectively.
Copeland goes into state with 2,211 career points and needs only 11 to leap-frog Jackie Pickel, a 2006 graduate, into eighth place on the school’s all-time scoring list.
Reuter is 16th on the chart with 1,093 points.
However, two young players – freshmen Emma Kate Brown and Halle Hughes – have been making strong contributions in Bradley’s drive to district and region tournament titles, the Sectional win over Oakland that punched its ticket to state.
Brown scored 12 points against Oakland and Hughes made some clutch plays in the win over Cumberland County, a seven-time Region 3-AAA tournament runner-up.
“Make no mistake, they’ll be wide-eyed when they step out there (Wednesday),” Jason Reuter said. “The senior leadership on this team has had a calming effect on those two girls. My job is to make them as relaxed as possible and let them know they’re not out there by accident, but because they belong. I’ll be telling them that in my mind they’re no longer freshmen, they’re sophomores. They’ll both do fine.”
Reuter was relieved the Bearettes beat Oakland for at least two good reasons.
One, they got a trip to Murfreesboro in search of their ultimate goal – a state championship.
Two, his team backed up his promise that if it won the region and a host role for Sectionals he would get them to state.
“My girls covered my backside (Saturday) night,” he said. “Big-time players come through in big-time situations and that’s what you had in that game – Brooke getting the rebound and coming down the floor looking for her teammate and Becca making the shot.
“That shot was not made by accident, even though it was in a freelance situation. We belong here and so does Ridgeway. In basketball karma, I guess it was fitting that she made that shot. She and I made a pact behind the scenes that we would get back to state. I didn’t know for sure, but I knew we’d try our best to get there.”
Rebecca Reuter missed out on last year’s state tournament after picking up two technical fouls and an ejection from the Sectional win over Blackman that resulted in an automatic two-game suspension. With appeals denied by TSSAA, Reuter watched the lopsided 64-38 loss to Science Hill from the sideline dressed in street clothes.
Acknowledging the Bearettes’ record is not as impressive as other teams in the tournament, he believes strongly that his squad in prepared for this assignment.
“We’re much more seasoned and battle-tested now,” he said. “There’s a reason we played Riverdale, a reason we played Dorman and (Parkview, Ga.) in South Carolina and a reason we played in Atlanta in a showcase event.
“Going undefeated was never an objective. My job was to get them as tough and battle-tested as I reasonably could. I think that’s paid dividends for us. We wouldn’t be here if we scheduled teams we could beat every night.”
The veteran coach – he assisted Bradley boys coach Kent Smith for 12 years before joining the Bearettes’ staff five years ago – believes the Bearettes will go into Wednesday’s game with a lot of confidence gained from the long late-season winning streak and a knack for winning close games to reach state.
“This is a very unselfish team that has bought into what we’re doing,” he said. “They don’t care who leads us in scoring. They just want to win. In a low-scoring game like Saturday, we could not have won that game back in December. When these girls step on the floor they’re expecting to win every night.
“And we’re going to ride this as far as it takes us.”
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)