“I’m very proud of this team. They’ve overachieved all season and never quit. This game was not a true reflection on our team,” commented head coach Jason Reuter after the Bearettes succumbed to nationally ranked Science Hill 64-38 Wednesday in the state quarterfinal round at MTSU’s Murphy Center.
Making it first appearance in the state tournament in 13 years, Bradley dropped its first game to a Tennessee team and posted a 29-3 record in its Elite Eight run.
Bradley loses four seniors off of this year’s squad, including starting wings Kayla Withrow and Brandi Whitted, plus “sixth man” Baylee Carroll and Maggie Thompson.
“We’re losing some good players that have worked really hard to get us where we are (at the state tournament), but we’ve got some good players coming back and our plan is to be back here again next year,” remarked coach Reuter.
The Bearettes are 88-11 since Reuter took over the program three years ago, which is the third best record in Class AAA during that time span. Defending state champion Riverdale, ranked No. 2 nationally and No. 1 in the state, is 101-5 over the same three seasons, while Science Hill, ranked No. 2 in the final AP poll and No. 22 in the nation by ESPN, has posted a 105-8 mark during the same stretch.
Riverdale (33-0) and Science Hill (34-3) met in last year’s state final, with the girls from Murfreesboro snapping a 38-game winning streak by the Johnson City squad to claim the title.
While they are the overwhelming favorites to meet for the championship again Saturday, both must get past Memphis teams in Friday’s semifinals to do so.
After blasting Brentwood (22-12) 83-37 Wednesday, Riverdale will take on Memphis Central (26-5) in the Final Four, while Science Hill will battle Memphis Overton (32-6). Central downed Bearden (24-9) 62-45 in its opener, while Overton was a 52-45 winner over Antioch (26-7).
Going into the 25th state tournament appearance in school history, the third-ranked Bearettes knew it would be a tough row to hoe, especially with half of the “Twin Towers” not available to play.
Six-foot-2 junior post Rebecca Reuter was serving the first of a two-game suspension after picking up her second technical foul in a 4 1/2-minute span of the fourth period, causing her to be ejected from Saturday night’s TSSAA Sectional Game victory over No. 4 Blackman.
The TSSAA denied Bradley’s appeal of the penalty, so the Bearettes were without her double-double average (11 points, 10 rebounds per game), as well as experiencing the emotional impact on the squad.
“She and I have been playing together since the sixth grade. She’s more than a teammate, she’s my sister,” declared a tearful Brooke Copeland, the other half of the “Twin Tower” tandem and District 5-AAA Player of the Year, after the loss.
“With not having Rebecca and then our shots weren’t falling, we kind of got down on ourselves early on,” expressed Carroll, a 5-foot-7 post player, who stepped into the starting lineup, netting nine points, grabbing four rebounds and handing out four assists, while filling in for Reuter.
“Baylee (Carroll) did a great job, but there’s no getting around the big difference in 6-foot-2 and 5-foot-7, especially when it comes to rebounding,” assessed coach Reuter. “All of our girls played their hearts out, but there was a reason Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were so good — you couldn’t walk one to get to the other.”
“Without Rebecca, they (Science Hill) were able to pack the lane to defend Brooke (Copeland), so we couldn’t force our will on them,” the Bearette mentor continued. “Also, with having just played Saturday night and not finding out who we were playing until Sunday afternoon, plus not knowing about the appeal until Monday, we didn’t have much time to prepare.”
Bradley’s only lead Wednesday came when Copeland hit a free throw 74 seconds into the contest. Science Hill (34-3) answered immediately with a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession and never trailed again.
Despite making just 4-of-12 shots and turning the ball over three times in the opening period, the Bearettes were only down 16-10 at the first break.
The Lady Hilltoppers netted the opening basket of the second frame, but a jumper by junior Whitney Donaldson and then a 3-pointer by Withrow at the 4:28 trimmed the deficit to just three points, but that would be the final Bradley field goal of the first half.
Science Hill scored 10 unanswered points before Copeland netted a pair of free throws with 50.6 seconds on the clock as the Lady Toppers led by a dozen (29-17) at the half.
Another 10-0 run in the third period pushed Science Hill’s advantage past the 20-point mark, and the difference was 47-25 when the frame ended.
After back-to-back single-digit scoring quarters, Bradley posted its best total (13) of the day in the final eight minutes, but the girls from upper East Tennessee were still able to increase the difference for another four points.
All of Carroll’s offense came in the final period with an old-fashioned three-point play, plus a pair of 3-pointers, while Donaldson drained a trey and added a free throw for half of her eight-point day. Donaldson also handed out four assists and copped a pair of steals.
Copeland led all scorers and rebounders with a double-double that included 17 points and 16 caroms, plus she blocked four shots.
With 38 points matching their regular season low in a loss to North Carolina state champion Millbrook, the Bearettes shot just 28 percent from the field, hitting just 9-of-34 shots in front of the 19-foot arc and only 4-for-14 from beyond it. Bradley also struggled at the free-throw line, making just 8-of-18 (44 percent).
Science Hill got off a dozen more shots than the Bearettes, hitting 25-of-58, including a half dozen 3’s. The Lady Toppers also dominated the glass by a 47-32 margin, including 18 offensive boards.
Middle Tennessee State signee Shy Copney led the victors with 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Enjelica Reid also posted a double-double with 11 points and 11 caroms. Keisha Gregory, daughter of East Tennessee State coach Karen Kemp, came off the bench to drain a pair of treys on her way to a dozen points.
The last time the two teams met, Bradley claimed a 71-55 victory in the prestigious Nations Bank Ladies Classic in Greeneville on Dec. 27, 1993, in Paul Cretton’s first season as the Bearette head coach.
TSSAA Girls’ State Quarterfinals
Science Hill 16 13 18 17 — 64
Bradley Central 10 7 8 13 — 38
LADY HILLTOPPERS (64) — Shy Copney 16, Keisha Gregory 12, Enjelica Reid 11, Knack 8, Tarter 7, Lyon 5, Head 3, Smith 1, Fenley 1, Webster, Herrin, Em. Reid.
BEARETTES (38) — Brooke Copeland 17, Baylee Carroll 9, Whitney Donaldson 8, Kayla Withrow 3, Brandi Whitted 1, Lyndsy Davis, Taelor Hill, Mady Stallings, Kayla Delane, Maggie Thompson, Lydia Pippenger.
3-POINTERS: Science Hill 6 (Knack 2, Gregory 2, Copney, Head); Bradley 4 (Carroll 2, Withrow, Donaldson).
FREE THROWS: Science Hill 8-of-15; Bradley 8-of-18.
RECORDS: Science Hill 34-3; Bradley 29-3.