Bledsoe County's girls take a 21-4 record into their TSSAA Region 4-AA basketball quarterfinal tonight at 8 EST. The first thought they gave to playing in a region quarterfinal was exactly 25 games ago.
District 7 champion Bledsoe County will be hosting Murfreesboro Central Magnet tonight in Pikeville. It could've been any District 8 team, and it likely wouldn't have mattered to the Lady Warriors.
The current senior class has endured two lopsided region-quarterfinal losses at Livingston Academy after Bledsoe lost big at Cannon County the first year of the present region alignment. Senior guard Anna Peters said last season's 55-48 home loss to Upperman was close all the way: The Lady Warriors just didn't finish well.
"We should've won that game," senior point guard Destanie Smith said. "We had too many turnovers. As a team, we just didn't click that night."
It isn't that the Lady Warriors weren't focused on each game throughout this season. Their record reflects that they were. But for a program that reportedly hasn't competed in a state sectional since 1973, advancing past the first round of the region has been on the players' minds since before the season started.
"We've had this goal set all year," Peters said. "We're tired of coming up empty."
Bledsoe County also was district champion last season, the first as head coach for Carlos Davis. Halei LeQuire and Taylor Cunningham were the seniors on that team, which finished 19-11.
"We lost two seniors, but I think we've definitely stepped up and made up for it," said Briley Stults, the Lady Warriors' other senior starter this year alongside Peters and Smith. "We have confidence in our game. We've got five seniors this year. We've got more leaders to help the team stay strong."
Peters, who was chosen most valuable player in the district tournament, leads the Lady Warriors with 15.1 points and 2.4 steals per game. Smith averages 12.5 points and leads with 4.9 assists per game and also leads in blocked shots with 45. Stults averages 8.6 points per game. The senior reserves are Erin Snow and Haylyn Walker.
Post player Catherine Davis, one of four juniors on the team, averages 10.3 points and is the rebounding leader at 8.6 per game. Another junior, Ashley Gilbert, rounds out the starting lineup.
"She's stepped up this year," Davis said of Gilbert. "She's worked herself hard since last season and earned her starting spot. She's run the point for us when Destanie needs a break, and she can step up and shoot the 3. The five we've got out there on the floor to start are about as talented as they come."
Central Magnet is 20-7 but lost guard Claudia Smith for the rest of the season to a knee injury in a district semifinal. She was second among all Rutherford County girls at 22.4 points per game. That leaves post player Ola Obi (12.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg) as the Lady Tigers' leading scorer.
The teams do not mirror one another in style of play.
"We do a lot of running in practice," Davis said. "We want to get up and down the floor and utilize our speed. We try to get a rebound, get an outlet pass and go. We usually average about 60 shots a game, sometimes more. We try to get up as many as we can."
The Lady Warriors are expecting to be energized by a huge crowd, which can't be good news for Central Magnet in its first appearance in a region tournament. But the Lady Tigers will find little sympathy in the environment they're about to enter.
"We've won the district two years in a row, but it's been quite a while since we've won in the region," Stults said. "I guess this game is a big deal to everybody in the community. It definitely is to us."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.