CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Bradley Central basketball players Alexis Barnes and Anna Walker broke into smiles as they walked downcourt in the final seconds of Saturday's 72-64 Class AAA sectional victory over Tullahoma in Jim Smiddy Arena.
The two senior posts had an enormous impact as the Bearettes sealed their 31st trip to the state tournament, where they will try to win a second straight and seventh overall championship later this week in Murfreesboro.
"After winning it all last year, we want to go up there and do it again so much more," said the 6-foot-2 Walker, who had 25 points and nine rebounds in her final home game. "We are all prepared and really excited. We just have to stay calm on the court and know we have it under control."
Earning its way to the Murphy Center was not an easy feat for Jason Reuter's squad, which is now on its third starting point guard this season — freshman Sloan Carpenter, who with senior Cambree Mayo helped lead the Bearettes to a region title.
Tullahoma (25-10) used a five-point possession to cut its deficit to 60-58 with 3:47 left in the fourth quarter. The Lady Wildcats trailed by 14 points early in the quarter, but they made it a one-possession game after Julia Duncan converted a three-point play and hit two free throws awarded for a technical foul. She finished with 23 points.
Then Bradley's Barnes stepped up.
After setting up her teammates throughout the game by setting screens, she sent a perfect lob pass over the top to Walker. Seconds later, Barnes drew her second charge of the game and went on to sink a pair of free throws to build the lead to 64-58 with two minutes remaining.
"We have really worked on our over-the-top passes," said Barnes, who finished with 16 points. "Other teams try to pressure us, but we are really strong when we get it down low. To help my team get back to state means a lot because we really want to go back-to-back, and I think we have what it takes."
The Bearettes (29-3) received a grand shooting performance to lock in their sixth state tournament appearance in a 10-year span. They shot 23-of-37 from the field, 7-of-11 from 3-point range and 19-of-24 from the foul line.
After a slow start to the second half, Mayo eased the tension with a 3-pointer in front of her team's bench to build a 41-33 lead with just less than five minutes left in the third quarter.
Mayo and Kelsey Carman each went 2-of-2 from 3-point range. Carpenter finished with 10 points.
"At this point in the season, it comes down to when you are under pressure, can you make the right decision when the money is on the line?" Reuter said. "We didn't play a perfect game, but our girls' experience helped tonight and we played pretty dang good basketball."