With sophomore Daniel Clark coming off the bench to drill four of a dozen Bear 3-point bombs, Bradley punched its ticket for a shot at a state tournament bid with a hard-fought 63-55 victory over archrival Cleveland High in the Region 3-AAA semifinals Tuesday evening.
“We did what we’ve done all year — we persevered,” declare senior captain Bryce Copeland. “To be able to come out of here (the Raider Dome) with a win says a lot about our team. I’m proud of them. Daniel (Clark) gave us a big boost and hit some really big shots for us.”
“This was a total team effort and tonight was Daniel’s night to shine,” proclaimed veteran head coach Kent Smith. “We knew we’d take some lumps early on, but these guys stick together and they have really come together. We’re playing with house money now. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
After defeating Cleveland (18-12) for the third time this season, all coming in the Raider Dome, Bradley (18-12) advances to Thursday night’s region championship game against regular season champ Ooltewah (19-9). The Owls knocked off district tournament winner Walker Valley 69-57 in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
The Bears and Owls will not only be batting for the region title, but for the right to host a TSSAA substate game Monday against either currently unbeaten and top-ranked Blackman (28-0) or Siegel (26-4), which was ranked sixth in the final Associated Press Class AAA poll.
The Blaze, which has handed Siegel three of its four losses this season, defeated Oakland (19-11) 53-33 in the Region 4-AAA semifinals Tuesday, while the Stars downed LaVergne (19-11) by a 77-61 tally.
Bradley opened each period Tuesday evening with at least back-to-back 3-pointers, but nailed three straight — from junior Logan Cox, Copeland and junior Taylor Bentley — to open the game on its way to an early 11-5 advantage.
The Raiders, whose first goal was also the first of four treys from junior Kendrick Thompson, answered the early Bear run with an 8-0 streak and took their first lead when senior Dustin Little took a feed from classmate CJ Bryant for an easy basket with 3:08 to go in the opening frame.
A putback of an offensive rebound by Cox and a Copeland free throw gave the edge back to Bradley, but Thompson got loose on a fast break for a hoop and some harm to put the Raiders up 16-14 when the first buzzer sounded.
The Bears retook the lead quickly by scoring the first dozen points of the second period. Clark and Copeland went back-to-back from distance to start the run before Bentley hit a deuce from the corner. On the ensuing Raider trip up the floor, Bentley knocked the ball free and as it was going out of bounds snagged it and flipped it behind his back to Copeland, who drove it home.
When Cleveland was able to snap its three-minute dry spell, it went on a 13-5 run to pull within a basket when Thompson drilled an NBA-range 3 with a minute left in the opening half.
Bradley was able to inch its edge to four points at the intermission after Copeland dished off one of his eight assists on the night to junior Dee Crisp for a baseline jumper just before the horn blared.
Both team hit 13 shots from the field in the first 16 minutes, with the Bears hitting better than 60 percent (13-for-21), including 6-of-10 treys. Cleveland was 13-for 25 (51 percent), but only two baskets came from distance.
After the break, Copeland hit a free throw and Clark drained a pair of consecutive 3-balls, but in between Bryant was able to drive the lane for a basket, then get a steal and got coast-to-coast with it for another.
The Raiders were able to claw back into the 7-2 run to even the score at 42-all when senior Jahmal Johnson slammed home a one-handed dunk with 2:28 left in the third frame.
Bradley answered with a Copeland 3-pointer from the top of the key and then found senior Matt Whitmire in the lane for a basket and led 47-44 when the period closed.
Once again Clark and Copeland teamed up for long-range bombs to open the final frame and quickly push the advantage to nine points, but Thompson hit from NBA range once again.
Holding Bradley to just a pair of free throws in a four-minute span, midway through the period, the hosts closed the gap to three points with a Bryant 3 and Johnson finding the bottom of the net from the paint.
However, just as had done all night, the Bears answered with Cox drilling his third 3-pointer of the contest. After a Copeland free throw, Thompson drained his final bomb from the edge of the court to close the gap to four points with 52 ticks on the clock, but the Bears were able to seal the deal hitting 4-of-4 free throws in the final 20 seconds.
“You always feel bad when you lose your last one (of the season),” commented Raider coach Jason McCowan afterward. “Our kids really played their guts out. Our seniors (Bryant, Johnson, Little) gave phenomenal efforts tonight and Kendrick (Thompson) was hitting from all over the place.”
“We fought back and tied it there at 42 but then we had a couple of bad gambles and Bradley hit their shots,” the Raider mentor added. “Clark surprised us there, but we expected Bryce to step it up. That’s what great players do in big games.”
Copeland led all scorers with 22 points, hitting 4-of-5 from long range, plus he grabbed four rebounds to go with his eight assists.
Clark was 4-for-6 on 3-pointers on his way to 13 points, while Cox drilled 3-of-5 from distance and tallied 11 points. Whitmire netted eight points and cleared five rebounds, while Bentley added five points and handed out four helps.
Thompson also connected on four 3-pointers to net 17 points, while Johnson added 14 and snatched nine caroms. Bryant netted 13 points, pulled down five boards, dished off four assists and copped three steals. Little wrapped up his prep career with a half dozen points and six rebounds.
“Cleveland played their hearts out,” praised Copeland. “I’m going to miss competing against those guys.”
“It’s tough to beat a good team like them three times, much less on their own court,” added coach Smith, whose 2003 team recorded four victories over Cleveland in the Raider Dome. “We’ll celebrate this win tonight, but then tomorrow we’ve got to turn our attention to Ooltewah and the region championship game.”
Bradley Central 14 19 14 16 — 63
Cleveland 16 13 15 11 — 55
BEARS (63) — Bryce Copeland 22, Daniel Clark 13, Logan Cox 11, Matt Whitmire 8, Taylor Bentley 5, Caleb Cain 2, Dee Crisp 2, Baylor Terrell.
BLUE RAIDERS (55) — Kendrick Thompson 17, Jahmal Johnson 14, CJ Bryant 13, Dustin Little 6, DJ Jones 3, Anfernee Scott 2, Isaiah Beaty, Mason Brown, Raekwon Bunion, Cantrel Ware.
3-point goals: Bradley 12 (Clark 4, Copeland 4, Cox 3, Bentley); Cleveland 6 (Thompson 4, Bryant, Jones).
Free throws: Bradley 9-of-17; Cleveland 1-of-6.
Records: Bradley Central 18-12; Cleveland 18-12.