By PATRICK MacCOON
When two county rivals square off in Jim Smiddy Arena tonight, a combined 847 prep basketball wins will take the court between the leaders or so-called "shot callers" for Bradley Central and Walker …
When two county rivals square off in Jim Smiddy Arena tonight, a combined 847 prep basketball wins will take the court between the leaders or so-called "shot callers" for Bradley Central and Walker Valley.
While the track records for Bob Williams, Paul Cretton, Jason Reuter and Chuck Clark speak for themselves, the veteran coaches once again will turn the spotlight to their players.
A star power in Bearette senior Rhyne Howard will take to the court for the first game as one of 25 Naismith Award finalists, which is an honor for the top female prep basketball player in the country.
The gifted do-it-all guard for the undefeated and No. 1 Class AAA team in the state averages 18.4 points per game, 6.9 rebounds, 4.9 steals (No. 1 in Tennessee), and 3.7 assists, along with 2.2 3-pointers per game. The All-Star Girls Report ranks her No. 8 overall prospect in the class of 2018.
The Bradley girls have won 16 of the past 17 games against Walker Valley, which last defeated the Bearettes 45-38 back on Dec. 3, 2013.
Meanwhile, perhaps one of the closest rivalries over the past few years will bring in a pair of boys teams that have each other’s number in a certain way.
The Bears have won the past eight regular season meetings, but the Mustangs have shown up in February and found a way to win eight straight postseason meetings since 2008.
Even with the drama between the two, both sideline leaders have remained as close as any coaches in District 5-AAA.
“Coach Williams pulled in my driveway and came in yesterday on his way home, in fact,” said Clark, who is in his fifth season at BCHS. “I have several grandchildren and Bob has a granddaughter and another one on the way. We are friends year-round.
“I told Bob, after the ballgame stop by on the way up the hill and we can sit and talk about the game, which is something we have done several times. His family means a lot to ours. When you have a dislike for someone, then it’s a rivalry. To me it’s a fun, friendly, competitive game.”
From David Ware to Josh Jones and Bryce Nunnelly, plenty of strong playmakers have helped WV show up when it matters most to win four district championships and a region title over Bradley.
Bradley has swept the regular season series seven of the past eight years and holds a sizeable 24-5 regular season advantage since the two began play in 2003, but is 0-6 against their postseason nemesis over the past five seasons.
“I always say, it’s hard to beat someone three times in a row in a single season,” said Williams, who is 8-0 against the Bears in neutral settings. “We are ready to add some new chapters to the series this year.”
With two seemingly even-matched teams, another close and hard-fought battle should be expected between the two just as history seems to show.
Since the last double digit regular season victory, which was a 73-61 win for Bradley under legendary coach Kent Smith in 2012, the average score between the two is 56.6 to 55.1 in favor of Walker Valley over the last 15 contests.
Of those battles, four have come down to a one-score difference and 11 were decided by single digits. Bradley gutted out a three-overtime, 51-46, victory last year on the road.
“We’ve had so many close games. That’s what makes it so fun and a good rivalry,” said Williams, who was once Bradley coaching legend Kent Smith’s first assistant coach. “Chuck and I are good friends. We live in the same neighborhood and regardless of any of our outcomes, we are still going to be friends.
“A lot of people come out and watch this game. It’s not just a simple district game, and our kids know that. They get up for this game and it fires everyone up on both sides. Often this game comes down to the last possession.”
Senior Mustang guard Kolten Gibson will enter leading all scorers in this confrontation with an average of 16.2 points per game.
After setting the state on fire with his dual-threat ability this past football season on his way to totaling the second most yards by a quarterback in TSSAA history, Gibson has found a groove on the hardwood.
The 6-foot-2 shooting guard, known for being able to slash his way to the hoop and drain from 20-feet and beyond, has poured in 71 points and 10 3-pointers over his past three contests.
“Kolten is a great athlete and an excellent young man,” Clark said. “You have to game plan for him, but they have other weapons and strong role players. He is definitely what we refer to as the head of the snake, though. I will for sure have one of my best defensive players on him.”
Gibson’s solid rhythm along with strong point guard play from Jordan Munck (12.5 ppg) has led Walker Valley to a key District 5-AAA win over McMinn County last Friday and an upset of sixth-ranked McMinn Central on Tuesday.
With the two frontcourt attackers expected to lead yet again, Williams would also like to see Zeke Westfield and Dustin Bunton combine for around 20 points and haul in a great deal or rebounds too.
Both Bunton and Westfield have the ability to throw down the big slam as well.
The Mustangs (5-10, 2-3 5-AAA) enter play averaging 56.9 points per game and allow 62.2 per game, but are fresh off their most complete defensive performance of the season in a 48-42 road victory over Class AA’s sixth-ranked McMinn Central.
“Both teams have struggled to score at times this year, so I think this game comes down to whoever can have a better offensive night and create more opportunities,” Williams said. “We just have to limit the mistakes, bad shots and turnovers.”
Meanwhile, the Bears (7-9, 2-3) are coming fresh off a 41-40 road victory at Soddy-Daisy where freshman Mason Rothwell nailed a 3-point basket at the final buzzer.
The win for Bradley was big, as they avoided losing for the sixth time in its last seven games.
Rothwell has seen all the court time he can handle and has become a key focal point in an offense (54.7 ppg) that is also led by Taye Cobb and Lameric Tucker.
“In the past (Bradley) has had those one or two guys that could get the basket,” Williams said. “Now, they are using more than just one guy to score. We could key on Cole Copeland in the past, but now you don’t know who is going to lead them in scoring.”
With a tie for fourth place between the two and a chance to even up with McMinn County, who hosts Cleveland tonight, there is no more extra motivation needed.
“There is definitely some pride involved in this game,” Clark said. “We have played some wire-to-wire finishes over the years and it should be close again. Our players will have an extra boost in them because it is not just your average game.”
Bradley Central will look to improve to 19-0 and 6-0 in district play, as they try and avoid an enormous upset bid by Walker Valley (9-6, 2-3 5-AAA).
Lauren Lay averages 15.5 points per game to lead the Lady Mustangs.
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