However, something besides the calendar flipped a couple of days later. Now the Region 3-AAA champion Bears (19-12) will play host to sixth-ranked Siegel (27-5) with a state tournament berth on the line Monday at “The Jim.”
“We came into this season with only two players that had significant varsity playing time, so we knew it would take a while for our guys to get used to playing at this level and playing with each other,” said veteran Bradley coach Kent Smith. “We lost some close games in December and we needed to learn how to finish.”
“There was no magic potion or coaching strategy to our starting to win,” he said. “It was just experience and gaining the confidence we needed. Having a mind frame of confidence is huge.”
The Bears opened 2013 with eight straight wins and even though they dropped three of their last four regular season games, bounced back to earn spots in both the District 5-AAA and region championship games.
Having won five of six postseason battles, Bradley captured its first region title in six years with an exciting 60-56 victory over 2012 state tournament participant Ooltewah Thursday evening at the Raider Dome.
“We have stressed all year that there are three parts to a season — before Christmas, after Christmas, when most of your district games are played, and the tournaments,” Smith said. “Everybody comes into the tournaments 0-0. We knew that we could play with anybody we were going to face, and with the exception of the (district championship) Walker Valley game, we have hit our shots and played strong on the boards and on defense.”
Playing in their second straight substate game and eighth overall since Smith took over the program, the Bears are hoping for a better result than last year when a very controversial technical foul call with 1.5 seconds remaining brought their season to a close at Blackman High school in Murfreesboro.
Bradley and the Blaze were tied when the home team called a timeout after getting a turnover and while the teams were heading to the benches, a referee from the far end of the court “T’d up” a Bears player for something he “heard the player say to another official.” The player and the other referee were 30 feet from the one who blew the whistle in an extremely loud gymnasium.
The result was the Blaze hitting the two free throws, then getting possession of the ball to run off the final ticks and head to the state tournament.
The teams almost had a rematch set up when Siegel was leading the unbeaten and top-ranked Blackman squad 46-39 with 3:50 to go, before the Blaze were able to rally to send the game to overtime and then shoot down the Stars for the fourth time this season.
Blackman had three double-digit wins over Siegel before claiming a 60-56 overtime win the region title game. Siegel’s only other loss this year came to Independence (74-67) back in November.
“We played them (Siegel) twice last year and then have everybody back,” said Smith. “They are very athletically gifted. They are very physical, fast and super aggressive. They will push the ball up the court quickly offensively and mix a trap and zone on defense.”
The last time the Stars came to Jim Smiddy Arena, they were coming off a Final Four finish at the 2011 state tournament. The Bears were without a couple of starters and lost another with a concussion in the second half, but the team was somehow able to force the game to two overtimes before blowing out the visitors in the final four minutes for an 81-72 victory in a season-opening Hall of Fame game.
Siegel was able to gain a little revenge a month later with a 59-53 victory when the two teams met in the 2011 Maryville Christmas Tournament.
The Stars come into Monday’s match up minus its top scorer as senior Robert Brandon, who was netting 18 points a night, suffered a season-ending knee injury a couple of week ago.
Junior Charles Clark now leads the Star offense at 15.5 points per game (PPG), while junior point guard Ryan Jones averages 13.5 points and 4.3 assists a game. Jones had 21 points against La Vergne in the region semis and 17 in the title game against Blackman. Clark had 13 points against the Blaze before fouling out near the end regulation.
“Jones does a real good job running their offense. He’s a good floor leader and play maker,” said Smith. “Clark is a slasher/swing man who can hit from outside or drive. He plays the 2 or 3 [position].”
The Stars supporting cast includes junior “banger” Dominique Gooch (8.8 PPG), junior Aden Burton (7.6 PPG) and 6-foot-4 senior Damien Clark (6.8 PPG).
“Gooch is very physical. They’re not overly big, but play an aggressive, physical style of ball, but that’s what we’ve been facing lately,” Smith said. “We did a good job of keeping Ooltewah and Cleveland off the boards and well have to do the same Monday.”
Bradley is led by four-year starter Bryce Copeland, who is averaging 19.4 points with 5.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.4 steals a game. The 5-foot-11 senior guard leads the team with 60 3-pointers, plus has shot 55 percent from the two-point area on his way to 601 points this season.
“Bryce is a heck of a player,” Smith said. “People don’t realize just how much he has done for our program. It’s a lot more than just points. He makes our team better in every aspect of the game. He’s done the same for our basketball program as he has done for the football team.”
Senior Matt Whitmire is the only other returning starter from last season. The 6-foot-4 post has dropped in 11.5 points and cleaned the glass at a 5.6 clip for a team — leading 176 rebounds this season.
Junior sharpshooter Logan Cox has connected on almost 40 percent of his 3-point attempts, draining 58 treys and hitting 82 percent from the free throw line while posting netting nine point a night.
Running the point most of the time, junior Taylor Bentley is averaging 8.1 points and is right with Copeland (95-94) with three assists. He is also snatching 2.8 caroms and swiping 2.1 steals an outing.
Six-foot-three senior Caleb Cain, who missed the region title game due to an illness, was back at practice Saturday and has contributed 5.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game this season.
Sophomore Daniel Clark has been a spark off the bench this season and earned all-region honors last week with career-high scoring marks. The 6-foot-2 swing man drained a half dozen 3-pointers while scoring 28 points in the last two Bear victories.
While Bradley will be looking for their sixth state tournament trip since 2000, and their first since 2007, Siegel has been to TSSAA Final Four three times — in 2005, 2008 and 2011 — and made Elite Eight twice in 2006 and 2010 since opening its door in the 2003-04 school year.