Winning at a near 90-percent clip (113-16) the past four seasons, the renewed Black-and-Gold tradition has captured four straight district and region championships and is looking to claim a second consecutive sectional victory Saturday night for a return trip to the TSSAA Girls State Championships.
Like it has the past three seasons, a very formidable Middle Tennessee opponent stands in the way as ninth-ranked Oakland makes the journey from Murfreesboro to Jim Smiddy Arena for the 7 p.m. tipoff.
The Lady Patriots are 26-6 on the season with four of those losses coming to crosstown rival Blackman, which has been ranked No. 1 in the nation by both MaxPreps and ESPN for most of the season.
“If you look at the scores of the four games between Oakland and Blackman, you see that the margin of victory kept shrinking,” noted Coach Reuter. “They went from 26- and 22-point games to just seven Wednesday night.”
The 30-1 Lady Blaze held off Oakland in tight a 44-37 battle in the Region 4-AAA title game, while Bradley was rallying late to claim a 76-72 overtime thriller against District 6-AAA champion Cumberland County, to earn the right to host the Lady Patriots.
“Let’s be honest about it, this (Wednesday’s region championship) was an elimination game,” he assessed. “”Nobody’s going into Blackman’s home floor and winning.”
In a bold “Joe Namath-style” guarantee, Coach Reuter went out on a limb and told his players Wednesday night, “If you give me a home game against Oakland, I’ll give you a spot in the state tournament.”
While exuding confidence in his team’s capabilities, the veteran coach is wise enough to know that is a tall order to make.
“Oakland is an excellent team. They come from the toughest district and region in the state, but I feel like if we play our game, on our floor, we have an excellent chance to go back to state,” expressed Reuter, whose team is riding a 15-game winning streak.
At the first of the season, the Bearettes had just two players returning with significant varsity experience, but what experience it is — NCAA Division I signees Brooke Copeland and Rebecca Reuter.
Claiming her second straight District Player of the Year award, Copeland is a 6-foot-2 swing player who can dominate the paint, step outside to hit the 3-ball, pass like a point guard, break a press with her dribble and defend with a vengeance.
A McDonald’s All-American nominee, the University of Florida signee has averaged 21 points and 9.5 rebounds a game this season, plus she has more than 60 blocked shots, over 50 steals and handed out and close to 70 assists in the 30 games played so far this season. Her career mark of 2,197 points puts her just 25 behind Jackie Pickel for eighth place on the Bearette all-time scoring list.
While Coach Reuter is 6 feet, 8 inches tall himself, his daughter Rebecca has sprouted up to 6-foot-3 and is heading to play for 23rd-ranked Middle Tennessee State.
The younger Reuter has averaged 12 points and cleared better than nine caroms a game, while leading the team in both assists (80-plus) and blocks (65). Her career scoring total of 1,084 has her 16th on the program’s all-time list.
“Having the two of them together has been a tremendous blessing,” proclaimed Coach Reuter. “You can argue either would have had higher career numbers without the other having been there, but they haven’t worried about things like that. They just love playing the game, and don’t care who gets what as long as we win.”
The team’s success this season, a 25-5 mark so far, can also be credited with the successful return of junior point guard Chelsie Summars and the emergence of a pair of talented freshmen to go with some strong supporting players.
After showing significant signs of future stardom as a freshman, Summars had been sidelined with not one, but two ACL surgeries on the same knee. Released to play just before the season began, she has steadily improved and handed out 80 assists.
“Chelsie is three times the player she was at the beginning of the season,” commented Coach Reuter. “She is our quarterback on the court. She runs our offense and has been a big part of why we are where we are.”
The coach likewise had high praise for ninth-graders Emma Kate Brown and Halle Hughes, who are the team’s third- and fourth-leading scorers.
Brown, a 5-foot-10 swing player, has scored in double figures numerous times, including 19 in Wednesday’s region final, and is averaging eight points and three rebounds a game. She’s also the team’s highest percentage free throw shooter at 89.6 on more than 70 charity tosses this season.
Hughes, a 5-foot-8 guard, is netting better than six points a contest and is the top 3-point percentage shooter, hitting over 39 percent of her long-range bombs. A quick scrapper, she sneaks in the paint for rebounds and has a knack for getting to the rim on a drive.
“When the cheese was on the cracker, they have both come through for us with crucial buckets or free throws,” Coach Reuter proclaimed. “They are both from basketball coaches’ families and have been around gyms for a long time. They aren’t your typical freshmen.
“We’ve also had several other girls step in at different times and provide key playing time for us,” he added. “Mady Stallings is our leading 3-point shooter (with 27), Lyndsy Davis had some health problems during the season but came in Wednesday night and scored six big points for us in the fourth quarter. Both of those girls are seniors that don’t get a lot of recognition, but are playing important roles for us.
“The biggest thing this team has right now is a ‘refuse to lose’ attitude,” Coach Reuter expressed. “When we were down by seven points with four minutes to go and Rebecca fouled out of the game (Wednesday), we picked ourselves up and never doubted for a minute that we could win it.”
That fortitude will be mustered again Saturday night against an Oakland team that also has a 6-foot-2 center in sophomore Shelby Gibson, who scored 57 points in the team’s three region games.
The Lady Patriots also have a trio of senior starters, including All-Region performers 5-foot-9 point guard Emily Eubanks, a Lipscomb signee, and Kaitlyn Oliver, a 5-foot-8 forward, plus 5-foot-8 guard Kiara Howse.
“They are a very well coached team and will be prepared to come in and try to do whatever they have to do to stop us,” declared Coach Reuter. “Coach Jennifer Grandstaff has been there a long time and knows how to prepare a team for a game like this. I saw her Oakland team beat Bradley in a sectional game when Jack Harlow was our coach (in 2001).”
Bradley and Oakland have only played four times since 1993, with coach Paul Cretton’s Bearettes winning a regular season game in 1997, while Harlow coached the other three games, splitting sectional games in 2000 and 2001, plus winning in a Christmas tournament contest in 2002.
The teams have both played eighth-ranked and two-time defending state champion Riverdale this season, with the Bearettes falling 69-62, while the Lady Patriots split their regular season games with the Lady Warriors and then beat them again in the District 7-AAA semifinals.
“We can’t control who we play when it gets to this point. All we can control is how we prepare and perform,” remarked Coach Reuter. “They (Oakland) are obviously one of the top teams in the state, but I feel like so are we. That’s who is left playing at this point.”
The Round of 16 will whittle the state tournament field down to eight who will gather in Murfreesboro beginning Wednesday.