The Bears did, with their best offensive output of the evening combined with some very strong defense in the final four minutes for a 64-54 victory over Campbell County in the opening round of the Renasant Bank Christmas Tournament in Maryville Wednesday evening.
The Bears will now take on host Maryville (7-2) this evening at 8 after the Rebels knocked off Greeneville by a 72-55 margin. A Smith-led Bradley team has only played Maryville once, that being a 73-68 overtime loss in the opening round of the 2007 TSSAA state tournament. Two days later, Maryville won the state championship.
Other first round results Wednesday included McMinn County nipping William Blount 50-48, Knox Fulton blasting Morristown-East 74-34, Knox Webb doing the same to Knox Central 77-48, Maplewood coming over from Nashville for a 69-60 win over Alcoa, Sevier County downing Austin-East 80-63 and Stone Memorial outgunning Brainerd 93-82.
Bradley (5-5) and Campbell County (6-8) swapped the lead a half dozen times in the first six minutes before junior Taylor Bentley drove to the hoop for a basket, then copped a steal on the ensuing possession, dishing the rock off to senior Bryce Copeland for a fast-break jumper to put the Bears up 12-9 at the first break.
Coach Smith’s crew was able to maintain the lead throughout the second frame, going up by as much as six points, but the Cougars clawed back and an alley-oop inbound pass for a bucket with 8.4 ticks on the clock cut the difference to a single point at the half.
After the intermission, the seesaw battle continued with five more lead changes. After Bradley went up by five points early in the frame, before 6-foot-4 Gunner St. John drained four straight 3-pointers from deep in the left corner to put the Cougars up by four points with 3:42 to go in the period.
“We had a little trouble rotating on defense there and let their big guy step out and drain those 3s,” coach Smith related.
The Bear defense stiffened and allowed Campbell County just one more basket before the third quarter buzzer sounded, while Copeland and junior Logan Cox both drilled treys and senior Matt Whitmire, who scored eight of his 10 points on the night in the period, put back in an offensive rebound then hit a baseline jumper to even the game at 43-all heading into the final eight minutes.
After Copeland opened the fourth period with a jumper from the lane, the Cougars netted a free throw and then another of their nine 3-pointers on the night to take their final lead at 47-45 with 6:15 to play.
That’s when Bentley took over, scoring 14 of his career-high 18 points, including a trio of treys and 3-of-4 free throws down the stretch. He also pulled down a pair of rebounds, copped two steals and handed out an assist in the final frame as the Bears pulled away while the Cougars hit just 2-of-8 shots in the final six minutes.
“Taylor (Bentley) had a couple of big steals and knocked down some key shots, while we picked up our defense in the final four minutes,” commented coach Smith. “He and Whitmire really stepped it up in the second half.
“We’ve been trying to emphasize to our guys that it’s a ‘possession game.’ You don’t have to score on every possession, but you need to have quality possessions,” he added. “We were stuck in quicksand a little in the first half, probably from the Christmas layoff, but we turned it around in the second half.”
Copeland, who has been averaging 21.2 points a game so far this season, hit his average with 21, netting at least five points in each frame, including a pair of 3s. He also pulled down five rebounds, copped four steals and dished out four helps.
Bentley swiped five balls on the night, plus cleared three caroms and handed out three “dimes” in the victory. Whitmire helped out with seven rebounds to go with his 10 points.
Bradley senior Caleb Cain cleaned the glass for eight boards, netted eight points and blocked a shot. The Bears won the rebounding battle by a 36-28 margin, plus turned the ball over just nine times, while the Cougars had 18 miscues, 12 of which were Bradley steals.
Campbell County 9 15 19 11 — 54
Bradley Central 12 13 18 21 — 64
COUGARS (54) — Gunner St. John 14, Brandon Lee 13, Corey Poteet 10, Torres 7, Cain 5, Phillips 2, Etters 2, Letner 1, Bailey.
BEARS (64) — Bryce Copeland 21, Taylor Bentley 18, Matt Whitmire 10, Caleb Cain 8, Logan Cox 3, Daniel Clark 2, Baylor Terrell 2.
3-point goals: Campbell Co. 9 (St. John 4, Poteet 2, Lee, Cain, Torres); Bradley Central 6 (Bentley 3, Copeland 2, Cox).
Free throws: Campbell Co. 5-of-8; Bradley Central 6-of-11.
Records: Campbell Co. 6-8; Bradley Central 5-5.