COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Cookeville wanted a low-scoring game.
It got one.
One, uh, two problems: the Lady Cavaliers barely got to the 30-point mark and the high-riding, state-ranked Bearettes put enough pace in the game to win going away
The result: Bradley Central 48, Cookeville 30.
With Monday’s Region 3-3A semifinal victory, the Bearettes (29-3), who have won 17 in a row, marched into Wednesday’s championship game against Cumberland County at 7 p.m. Central time. The Lady Jets routed McMinn County, 67-46.
“This is tournament-time basketball,” Bradley coach Jason Reuter said. “We’ve seen it many times. Teams don’t take shots they normally take. Coaches and players get tighter and we knew they didn’t want to play at our pace.”
Boys’ teams take the court Tuesday night. District 5-3A champion Walker Valley (20-9) plays Cookeville (23-8) at 6 p.m. Central and Bradley Central, runner-up to Walker Valley, takes on District 6-3A kingpin White County (29-0). The Warriors, simply giddy about shooting 3s, are ranked fifth in the state and is the state’s to-scoring team with an 80.7-point per-game average.
In the Warriors’ last six games, they’ve twice scored 100-plus points, put up 92 against McMinn County in the regional opener and scored 80 or more twice. In a regular-season game against Rhea County, White County set a state record with 31 made 3-pointers and won the game 107-75.
The Bearettes had a tough shooting night from 3-point distance, connecting on just 4-of-16 for 25 percent. However, they blistered Cookeville (20-10) inside the 3-point-line by hitting 18-of-24 for 75 percent.
Sophomore Rhyne Howard and junior Halle Hughes combined for 30 points, matching Cookeville’s entire offense. Howard scored 17 points and Hughes added 13. Howard and Julia Gaither, who finished with 10 points, combined to hit 4-of-7 3s and grab 11 rebounds; Howard got six.
Three other Bearettes – Hughes, Kate Brown and Emma Kate Brown – went a combined 0-for-9 from 3-point land. They helped in other ways, one of which was collectively pulling down 11 rebounds.
Howard and Hughes each added to their career 1,000-plus point totals.
Howard is the first sophomore playing the current 5-on-5 format to score more than 1,000 career points in her first two seasons. Amy Geren, Paige Redman and Brittany Jackson scored 1,000 points in their first two years, but joined the program as sophomores when Bradley Central only had sophomore, junior and senior classes. Bradley didn’t add a freshman class until Walker Valley High School opened in 2000.
Hughes (1,180 points) ranks 18th on the Bearettes’ all-time scoring list and Howard (1,045) comes in at No. 21.
It was Howard’s hitting two 3-pointers in the second quarter that helped the Bearettes build a 15-9 halftime lead. The highly touted second-year player also had three steals and three blocks to power the Bearettes into position to win their 36th region title.
“It feels good being in the championship game,” she said.
The Bearettes and Lady Jets (24-4), who have won 17 of their last 18 games (the lone loss was at Bradley Central, a 60-56 decision on Feb. 13.
Cookeville, the District 6-3A runner-up who had won seven of eight coming into the semifinal showdown, had trouble with Bradley’s zone and failed to score in the second period after leading 9-6 at the first break.
“We were trying to speed them up,” Howard said. “Our defense in the second quarter was pretty good and it doesn’t matter to us if we play man or zone. We feel good either way.”
The Lady Cavaliers’ Sydney Bean made two free throws with 1:17 left in the opening quarter for a 9-4 lead. They didn’t score again until Courtney Savage dropped in a left-handed layup at the 6:07 mark of the third period – an excruciating span of almost 11 minutes.
“We were prepared for them playing slow,” Hughes said. “We’ve seen that from two or three teams now. We had to stay focused and stick with our plan. We also knew we’d go to the zone at some point and when coach Reuter called for it, it was the right time.
“We’re as comfortable playing zone as we are man.”
Reuter went to the zone a bit of uncertainty.
“I didn’t know how they would attack the zone,” said Reuter, now 9-1 against Cookeville under coach Mindy Odom. “(Bean) is their marquee shooter and she showed it a little bit there at the end, but we forced them play on the perimeter a lot and limited their shots. Our girls did a great job finding her.”
Bradley Central went on a 12-5 run to start the third quarter and put Cookeville in a 27-14 hole. Gaither made two free throws and a 3 from the wing to cap the offensive spurt.
Cookeville hit four straight free throws, cutting its deficit to 27-19, but Gaither made one charity toss and the Bearettes went to the fourth period with a 28-19 advantage.
“When (Bradley) was in a man defense, we were getting inside and scored effectively,” Odom said. “When they went to the zone, it stifled us. Give Bradley’s defense credit. We knew it would be difficult and we kind of gave up points down the stretch by fouling them while trying to get back in it.”
Opening the fourth quarter, Hughes made a fast-break layup, Gaither drilled a 3 – the ball bounced off the rim twice before falling through – and Howard connected from the right wing to give the Bearettes a 35-19 lead with 5:35 remaining.
In the final 3:09, Bradley Central went 9-of-11 from the foul line, Hughes made a layup for the only basket in that stretch.
“It was a pretty clean game,” Reuter said. “We had seven turnovers and they had nine. It was two good teams battling. We made a few more baskets. The biggest key was Cookeville only had two offensive rebounds. That’s not a lot of put-back opportunities.”
Bean sparked Cookeville with 17 points that included all five of the team’s 3-pointers.
Now, the Bears are assured of at least two more games – the region title contest and a sectional game on Saturday. If the Bearettes claim the title on Wednesday, they host a sectional at Jim Smiddy Arena in Cleveland. Lose, and they’ll hit the road against one of the strong Murfreesboro squads.
Riverdale (27-4) will play Stewarts Creek (24-7) for the Region 4-3A title on Saturday at LaVergne High School. That game is also slated for 7 p.m. Central.
A sectional win will keep alive Bradley’s hopes of winning its first state championship since 1976 when girls played 6-on-6 basketball. In more recent times, the Bearettes finished as runners-up in 1995 (they also finished second in 1964).
Cumberland County 67, McMinn County 46: Makenzie Iles pumped in 29 points – 14 in the first half, 15 in the second – to lead the Lady Jets (24-4) past McMinn County (17-16) and into the title showdown against Bradley Central.
Gracee Dishman added 17 points for Cumberland County, including 13 in the first half as the Lady Jets built a 38-26 lead. Alli Hyder tossed in 11 points.
The Lady Cherokees got 15 points from Kalen Hicks and Ebony Kelley finished with 14.
McMinn had three players foul out – Emily Liner, Kaitlynn Hennessee and Hicks.
Cookeville 9 0 10 11 – 30
Bradley Central 6 9 13 20 – 48
Cookeville (30) – Sydney Bean 17, Masters 3, Savage 8, To. Gwynn, Whitson, H. Smith, Marek, C.G. Savage 2, Ti. Gwynn.
Bradley Central (48) – Roberts, Hughes 13, K. Brown, E.K. Brown 6, K. Hughes, Morgan 2, Rhyne Howard 17, Julia Gaither 10, McRee,
3-Point Goals – Cookeville 5 (Bean 5), Bradley Central 4 (Howard 2, Gaither 2).
McMinn County 8 18 14 6 – 46
Cumberland County 22 16 15 14 – 67
McMinn County (46) – Harper 4, Walker, Murphy, Belcher, Liner 4, Hennessee 8, Ebony Kelley 14, Kalen Hicks 15, Schiestel, Beaty, Burns 1, Gleaton, Lathan.
Cumberland County (67) – Alli Hyder 11, Makenzie Iles 29, C. Smith 1, Varney 6, Gracee Dishman 17, Brown, Hinch 3, Wilson, A. Smith.
3-Point Goals – McMinn County 2 (Hicks 2), Cumberland County 5 (Dishman 2, Varney 1, Iles 1, Hyder 1).
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)