The Rhea County High School Lady Eagle basketball team’s magical season came to a close Monday night in Sparta, as the Bradley Central Bearettes (27-3) pulled away late in the fourth quarter of the region semifinal game to get the 62-55 win, and advance to region finals on Wednesday.
The Lady Eagles, who battled to the bitter end, didn’t go down without a fight in the ‘slugfest’, which had nine lead changes and eight ties throughout the game. Rhea’s biggest lead of the game was six points, which happened in the second and third quarters, while the Bearettes largest lead of the game was 10 points and came late in the fourth.
Rhea took an 11-10 lead at the end of the first quarter with point contributions from Mallory Hampton (4), Haley Cameron (3), Macy Welch (2) and Emma Gentry (2).
The Lady Eagles remained consistent in the second and tallied 11 more points to Bradley’s eight and carried a 22-18 lead to the locker rooms. Rhea’s Maddie Taylor drained three 3-pointers in the second quarter to lead all scorers at halftime with nine points.
Due to early foul trouble in the second period, starters Cameron, Maddie Smith and Welch had to visit the Rhea bench for a few minutes, which didn’t help the Lady Eagles’ cause. Cameron and Smith eventually fouled out of the game late in the fourth quarter.
The Bearettes used the Rhea foul trouble to their advantage in the third by going on a 12-0 run and outscored the Lady Eagles 18-14. Cameron was fouled on a made layup at the third quarter buzzer, and sank the ensuing free throw to complete the original 3-point play. The teams were tied at 36 headed to the fourth.
The teams continued to spar and exchange buckets in the first two minutes of the final period, as the last tie of the night came on a Hampton jumper outside the paint to put the game score at 40-40. However, the defending Class AAA state champion Bearettes, seized the final lead of the game at the 5:41 mark in the fourth and never relinquished it.
Bradley went up 10 points with 1:33 remaining, but the Lady Eagles refused to give up, as they cut the lead back to five points over the next 37 seconds, and trailed 57-52 with 56 ticks left on the clock. The Bearettes went up seven again, but Rhea cut the lead to four points with a 3-pointer from Hampton with 30 seconds left in the game.
With the Lady Eagles out of timeouts, they had no choice but to quickly foul and put Bradley at the free throw line in hopes of a miss and another scoring opportunity. Unfortunately for Rhea, the Bearettes went 5-of-6 from the charity stripe in the final 56 seconds of the game to secure the 7-point win. Bradley shot 17 free throws in the fourth, making 13 of them.
The Lady Eagles totaled 19 points in the fourth to Bradley’s 26. Hampton rattled in 13 points including a 3-pointer, while teammates Smith and Welch knocked down a trey apiece.
Hampton led all scorers with 24 points. She surpassed the 2,000-point mark at Cookeville on Feb. 14, and averaged 26.4 points per game in the Lady Eagles’ last five games, bringing her high school career total to 2,148 points.
The Lady Eagles, who were District 6-AAA runner-ups and Region 3-AAA semifinalists, finished the season with a 24-6 record.
First year Lady Eagle head coach, Tracy Vest, praised his team’s game performance, in particular, the Lady Eagles’ fight they brought to the Bearettes.
“We knew it was going to be a close, hard-nosed, physical game for 32 minutes, and that’s what it was,” said Vest. “It was kind of like two heavyweights [boxers] sitting there punching one another, and [Bradley] luckily, got the knockout punch at the end.
We just didn’t make a few shots down the stretch, we got into foul trouble, and we didn’t score there for a while,” added Vest. “But, the great thing is, they kept fighting until the last four zeros on the clock, and for that, I’m very thankful for them, and I think that shows what type of character they have.
Vest was very proud of his team’s season effort, especially one put forth for a first-year coach.
“From the very first day I walked into practice, until now, they’ve worked really hard, and had a great attitude,” said Vest. “I hurt for them, because I know how hard they played for me, and likewise, I wanted to coach hard for them.
Well, you put the year in perspective, and we had a great year,” continued Vest upon reflection of the team’s season. “The girls have done everything they had wanted to achieve, but coming up short, it’s heartfelt, especially knowing how hard they’ve worked.”
Lady Eagle notes – The team combined to hit nine 3-pointers. Making treys were Taylor (3), Cameron (2), Welch (2), Smith (1) and Hampton (1). The team went 12-of-13 from the free throw line, which is 92 percent. Hampton was 9-of-10, Gentry was 2-of-2 and Cameron went 1-of-1. Hampton had 11 rebounds, while Cameron grabbed eight boards. Gentry had four, while Smith had three, as Taylor and Welch had two rebounds apiece. Hampton had four assists, while Smith and Welch each had three. Welch led the team in steals, with three.
The Lady Eagles shot 31.5 percent, going 17-54 from the field. They were 9-of-35 from the 3-point line, shooting 25.7 percent.
BRADLEY (62) – Anna Walker 17, Alexis Barnes 14, Anna Muhonen 14, Sloan Carpenter 8, Cambree Mayo 6, Kelsey Carman 3
RHEA (55) – Hampton 24, Cameron 9, Taylor 9, Welch 8, Smith 3, Gentry 2