Updated with more information at 10:40 p.m. on March 11, 2020.
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — When last Saturday's sectionals set the field for this week's TSSAA Class AAA girls' basketball state tournament at Middle Tennessee State University, Bradley Central appeared to be the team to beat.
Less than 24 hours before the Bearettes began their bid to repeat as champions, they suffered a devastating blow when 6-foot-1 senior Anna Walker — their leading scorer this season, their most dangerous 3-point shooter and a prominent defender in the post — rolled her ankle during Tuesday's practice at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
They felt the full effect of that blow Wednesday in Murfreesboro.
Despite receiving immediate medical attention and even undergoing a cryotherapy session to treat her injured ankle, Walker was unable to play as the Bearettes lost 51-42 to Lebanon in a quarterfinal at the Murphy Center.
"You lose your senior captain, MVP of the team and most likely a two-time all-state player the day before you play, and it's emotional," Bradley Central coach Jason Reuter said of Walker, a UTC signee who scored 34 points and blocked 12 shots in last year's state tournament. "It's bad timing, bad luck. But you know what, something in life is going to happen a lot worse than that.
"I hate it for Anna. I wish we had a shot with her in there. But I love these girls just as much as if they had won another state championship. Tough times make tough people. These four seniors made me a better coach and person. I am blessed to have coached them, and they are as good as any group as I've ever had."
With Walker encouraging her teammates from the bench, it was classmate Alexis Barnes who powered a short-handed attack that experienced personnel losses even before this week. Jamaryn Blair, last year's state tournament MVP, transferred last month; junior point guard Jamia Williams was out due to knee surgery that already had forced her to miss several games.
Barnes scored nine of Bradley Central's first 10 points and made the ensuing free throw after getting fouled on a tough, driving bank shot, with that three-point play cutting Lebanon's lead to 7-6 entering the second quarter. The 6-foot post had 17 points to lead the Bearettes (29-4) in scoring Wednesday, concluding a season in which she shot better than 60% from the field and made 82% of her free throws, including all seven she took against the Devilettes (31-6) in this rematch from last year's quarterfinals.
"Being a Bearette is always special," said Barnes, who with Walker, Cambree Mayo and Amelia Reuter formed a senior that compiled a 128-9 overall record at Bradley Central. "I wouldn't trade this experience for the world. Coach Reuter says when it's good, it's never as good as it seems, and when it's bad, it's never as bad as it seems."
Walker — who averaged 17.1 points, 6 rebounds, 1.7 3s and 1.2 blocks per game this season — was severely missed, especially her ability to stretch the floor for her teammates. Reuter used three freshmen in the first quarter, with two often on the court at the same time.
The Devilettes added to the 19-16 lead they held at halftime by shooting 7-of-10 in the third quarter, including three of their six 3-pointers in the game and a steal and score from junior guard Addie Porter, who had a game-high 20 points. Alissa Mulaski's third 3-pointer put Lebanon ahead 46-33 with 2:40 left in the fourth.
The AAA girls' semifinals were set for Friday and the title game Saturday, but the TSSAA announced late Wednesday night that the schedule may change after the rest of the girls' quarterfinals in other classifications are completed Thursday.
Lebanon advances to face Arlington (31-5), which won the bracket's last quarterfinal of the day, 62-56 against Brentwood (29-3). The other semifinal pits Stone Memorial (30-4) against Whitehaven (28-3). Stone Memorial won its quarterfinal 61-46 against Science Hill (28-8), and Whitehaven won 66-63 against Maryville (30-5).
The Bearettes lost to an in-state opponent for the first time since Dec. 7, when they fell 76-68 to nationally ranked Ensworth, which beat Baylor in the semifinals and Brentwood Academy in the title game at last week's Division II-AA state tournament in Nashville. Bradley Central's 20-game streak came to an end on the same court where its dominant defense and a majestic 3-point make ended its 2018-19 season with the program's sixth state championship and first since 1976.
Region tournament MVP Anna Muhonen, who averaged 12 points and more than five rebounds per game as a junior this season, is among those who should return for Bradley Central next fall. And the Bearettes' tradition of success — which includes 10 straight district championships and 31 appearances at state — is not expected to end just because their time at this state tournament did.
"I am proud of my team for competing," Reuter said. "We were just limited on what we could do offensively. Our young players are going to be solid Bearettes in the future. We just didn't have enough experience in this situation to handle some of the things like the tough screens and other things Lebanon did."