“Everybody is back to 0-0,” veteran coach Kent Smith said when asked about the Region 3-AAA Tournament earlier this week. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done to this point, everybody starts over.”
With the pressure of a win or go home situation, eight teams will vie for a pair of berths for the TSSAA substate playoff round. District 5-AAA champion Walker Valley and runner-up Bradley Central will open the event at home, while Cleveland High will head up the mountain to Crossville for the Saturday evening games.
The Mustangs (18-11) will play host to Warren County (13-20), the No. 4 seed from District 6-AAA, while the Bears (16-12) will take on a very familiar Cookeville (26-7) squad. Both games will tip off at 7 p.m.
Playing in one of the toughest facilities to get a road win, the Blue Raiders (17-11) must deal with 6-AAA champion Cumberland County (17-15), while Ooltewah (18-9) journeys to White County (19-11) to round out the field in 8 p.m. starts.
Saturday’s winners will gather at the Raider Dome for the region semifinals on Tuesday, while the championship will be contested Thursday, with the two participants also earning a spot in the substate round March 4.
District Coach of the Year Bob Williams has had Walker Valley playing strong in the postseason, coming in as the No. 4 seed but posting three strong victories to claim the district title.
After starting the new year with back-to-back losses to county rivals Bradley and Cleveland, the Mustangs had won nine of a dozen games with two of the losses being by a single point to Ooltewah (in overtime) and the Raiders.
“We’re playing great right now. We’re making good decisions. Playing good defense and being patient,” declared an exuberant Williams after Tuesday night’s 51-41 victory over the Bears to capture their first 5-AAA title since their run to the state semifinals in 2009. Walker Valley also eliminated a strong Rhea County team and upset top-seeded Ooltewah to earn a shot at the district crown.
Warren County struggled in the second half of the season, with just five of its victories coming since Christmas. The Warriors barely survived the 6-AAA play-in game, nipping Coffee County 51-50, but then dropped their next two tournament games by a combined 57 points to White County (82-44) and Cookeville (63-44).
The only other time Walker Valley and Warren County have met on the hardwood, the Mustangs claimed a 67-64 win in a 2011-12 season-opening Hall of Fame game at Rhea County.
Bradley and Cookeville have already played twice this season, splitting the games with each winning on its own floor. The Cavaliers nipped the Bears 53-52 back in mid-December, while both the Bears took the January meeting at “The Jim” (Jim Smiddy Arena) by a 13-point margin.
Although the teams never played until the 2009-10 season, coach Smith is 6-3 against Cookeville since. The Cavaliers ended Bradley’s campaign two years ago with a 55-52 victory in Cookeville in the opening round of the region.
“We are very familiar with them (Cookeville). We know them and they know us, so there won’t be any surprises,” stated the winningest coach in Bear basketball history.
The teams had a pair of common opponents this season with both splitting with White County, while Bradley was 3-1 against McMinn County and the Cavaliers beat the Cherokees in their only meeting.
With Cumberland County having been in the same district with the local teams until four years ago, Cleveland has faced the Jets many times over the years, but the pair have not met since Feb. 23, 2009. The Raiders handed Cumberland its final 5-AAA loss in the district tournament that year by a score of 72-48.
After going 4-4 in conference play during the regular season, including a 79-48 whipping by Cookeville in the finale, the Jets turned right around and upset the Cavaliers in the opening round of the 6-AAA tournament by a 72-65 margin. The boys from Crossville also beat Cookeville 86-71 on the Jet home court in early January.
After winning its first half dozen games this season while scoring in the 80s three times, Cleveland ran into some tough competition at a trio of tournaments but bounced back to win five of its final six regular season games and went into the district tournament with a 9-3 league mark and a No. 2 seed.
The Raiders opened the postseason with an easy 27-point victory over Soddy-Daisy, but then had their second lowest offensive output (39) in a 15-point loss to Bradley in the semifinals, and then came out on the short end of a six-point game with Ooltewah in Tuesday’s consolation game.
A potential Bradley-Cleveland rematch looms in Tuesday’s semifinals if both are able to handle their opening round opponents, while another Walker-Valley Ooltewah matchup could also be on the horizon in the other semifinal.
In the last 16 years, the region championship has been won by a District 5-AAA team 15 times, with Red Bank claiming the 2007-08 title as the lone exception. Bradley has played for the title 10 times, winning seven crown, but not since 2006-07. Cleveland has four region titles during the 16-year period, plus played in three other finals.
Ooltewah claimed the region belt last season in a 60-58 victory over the Bears, while Walker Valley (2008-09), McMinn County (2010-11) and Rhea County (1998-99) captured one title each.
The Region 3-AAA Girls Tournament gets under way this evening with “do-or-die” action at both Bradley Central and Cleveland High, while Walker Valley and McMinn County will head over the mountains to open on the road.
The third-ranked Bearettes (25-2) will host Cumberland County (10-21) in a rematch of last year’s region title tilt, while the Lady Raiders (18-9) will entertain White County (19-11) in 7 p.m. tipoffs.
The Lady Mustangs (15-15) will journey to 6-AAA champ Cookeville (21-10), while the Lady Cherokees (19-8) pay a visit to Coffee County (15-14).
— Local sports historian Gary Ownbey contributed to this story.