COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Bradley Central is the queen of Region 3-3A high school basketball.
Sophomore Rhyne Howard turned in a superlative performance that included 25 points and 13 rebounds, Bradley Central erased an early 10-point deficit and went on to clobber Cumberland County, 64-47, to capture its fifth Region 3-3A championship in six years Wednesday night at Cookeville High School.
“It never gets old,” Bradley coach Jason Reuter said.
The Bearettes (30-3) will host Stewarts Creek (24-8) in the sectional round on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Jim Smiddy Arena in Cleveland. Stewarts Creek lost to Riverdale, 51-48, in the Region 4-3A title game.
“That’s a super district over there and has been for several years with Blackman, Riverdale, Oakland and Stewarts Creek,” Reuter said. “That’s probably four of the top seven or eight teams in the state. And Stewarts Creek beat Riverdale and Blackman in back-to-back games this year. Enough said.”
Cumberland County (24-5) will play at Riverdale.
Sectional winners advance to the girls’ state tournament next week at Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Center in Murfreesboro.
With Wednesday’s win Bradley stretched its winning streak to 18, a run that includes two victories against the Lady Jets.
Cumberland County is the last team to beat the Bearettes in a 56-55 home-court decision on Jan. 5.
The Bearettes have faced the Lady Jets six times in the region title game dating to the 2000-01 season and won them all. The two long-time rivals split regular-season games decided by a combined five points.
Bradley Central won four straight region tournament titles from 2011-14 before White County ended the streak by beating Cumberland County for the 2015 championship.
This one was competitive for three-plus quarters, but the Bearettes, who have appeared in 31 straight regionals and 57 of the past 58 (they missed out in 1984), wiped out a 23-13 second-quarter deficit and closed out the victory with a 13-2 run over the final 3:17.
“We were slow with our defense in the first quarter and Cumberland took advantage of that,” Howard said, referring to the Lady Jets grabbing a 21-13 first-quarter lead.
With 1:29 on the clock, Cumberland County (24-5) enjoyed a 20-11 lead and already had made four 3-pointers, including two by Klaire Varney, the only Lady Jets player to reach double figures with 12 points.
The quick, opening surge later haunted the Lady Jets. At least, Bradley senior Julia Gaither thought so.
“They used a lot of energy in that first quarter,” said Gaither, who scored 14 points. “We started fighting back when we got in our man defense and they got tired in the second half. That’s when we really started working on them.
“As a senior, this was my second time in the region finals and I’m glad I could help my team get the championship.”
Gaither, who averages eight points per game, scored that many in the third quarter when the Bearettes outscored the Lady Jets, 19-9, enabling them to sail into the final period with a 12-point advantage.
Cumberland County regained the lead at 32-29 on Gracee Dishman’s 3 from the wing, but the Bearettes went on a 13-2 run for a 42-34 advantage. Gaither had six points in the scoring spurt and four other Bearettes contributed to it offensively.
Howard and Hughes – each player cracked the 1,000-point barrier earlier this season – made back-to-back layups, Emma Kate Brown tossed in two free throws and Katie Brown hit one.
Cumberland’s Hannah Brown connected twice from the charity stripe to momentarily slow the Bradley scoring express. It quickly regained momentum when Hughes hit a layup, Howard sank two free throws and Gaither’s layup with 8.0 seconds left extended the Bearettes’ lead to 48-36 after three quarters.
All that came after Howard helped turn the tide when the Bearettes sent notice they weren’t going anywhere, despite trailing 23-13 on Makenzie Iles’ bucket 12 seconds into the second quarter. Howard had nine points, including her only 3, in the period.
“We knew this would be difficult,” said Hughes, the team’s second-leading scorer on the season who had 12 against the Lady Jets. “For us to come out the way we did was nothing new. We’ve done that a lot this year and we were not going to panic.”
Down by the 23-13 margin, Bradley ran off seven straight points – Katie Brown hit a 3, Howard smacked a banker off the glass and Hughes added a layup – to pull within 23-20.
The Lady Jets were up 27-22, but Howard knocked down the 3, added a put-back and Gaither hit a bucket to close out another 7-0 run that produced a 29-27 halftime lead.
“We took their best shot and were up by two at the half,” Reuter said. “I made a mistake using the zone defense to start and Cumberland hit some 3s. But these girls have a lot of pride in this program and once we went to our man-to-man they just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to lock them down.’
Howard, a 6-foot-2-inch point guard, can shoot the 3, post-up smaller guards in the paint and cause havoc defensively. In addition to her scoring and rebounding on Wednesday, Howard also had five steals and four blocks.
Starting to sniff another tournament championship trophy in the 98th meeting between the two teams, Howard’s layup and a Hughes free throw helped push Bradley ahead 51-41 with 4:48 left in the game.
Cumberland’s Courtney Smith, the tallest player on the court, scored on a put-back and Alli Hyder made a layup to pull the Lady Jets within 51-45 with 3:35 remaining.
Howard hit a layup.
Kailey McRee drained a short jumper before Iles made a free throw.
Bradley’s E.K. Brown made a charity toss.
Gaither scored on a layup and Cumberland’s Hyder tossed in one.
Howard was true on both free throws, Hughes made a pair and Howard capped the Bearettes’ impressive comeback with an uncontested layup. That final flurry came in the final 66 seconds of the game.
To the surprise of no one, Howard, who played the final two minutes with four fouls, was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
Would she trade the MVP plaque for a sectional win and a spot ?
“I think I can have them both,” she said.
Bradley Central 13 16 19 16 – 64
Cumberland County 21 6 9 11 – 47
Bradley Central (64) – Roberts, Halle Hughes 12, K. Brown 4, E.K. Brown 5, K. Hughes, Morgan, Rhyne Howard 25, Julia Gaither 14, McRee 4, Lombard.
Cumberland County (47) – Hyder 8, Iles 9, Smith 8, Klaire Varney 12, Dishman 8, Norrod, Brown 2, Wilson.
3-Point Goals – Bradley Central 3 (H. Hughes 1, K. Brown 1, Howard 1), Cumberland County 6 (Varney 3, Dishman 2, Iles 1).
Bradley Central – Rhyne Howard (MVP), Halle Hughes, Julia Gaither
Cumberland County – Makenzie Iles, Gracee Dishman, Klaire Varney
Cookeville – Sydney Bean, Riley Masters
McMinn County – Ebony Kelley, Kalen Hicks
Bradley Central vs. Walker Valley, 6 p.m. local time
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)