published Saturday, January 7th, 2012

Bears build big leads, hang on for 58-55 win

ATHENS, Tenn. -- In now his 16th season as Bradley Central's basketball coach, Kent Smith has learned to appreciate a win any way his team can get it. Friday night against district opponent McMinn County, it was the survival method.

Smith's Bears had a 12-point lead with 1:47 remaining but had to hold on for a 58-55 victory over the Cherokees. Bradley had three double-figure scorers and forced 16 turnovers but was the victim of 15 itself, including six in that final flurry once McMinn switched to a full-court press.

The final two minutes left Smith relieved yet perplexed.

"We just didn't take care of the ball," he said. "We became very lackadaisical. We had the game won, and I told the guys afterwards that we can't go where we want to go if we do that."

Bradley's last turnover led to a four-point play by McMinn's Taylor Hicks with 4.7 seconds to go. It trimmed the lead to 56-55, but the Bears' Hunter Chastain nailed a pair of clutch free throws with 4.1 seconds remaining for the final tally. He finished 9-for-9 at the line.

That last sequence was a microcosm of the entire game, as the Bears repeatedly flirted with making it one-sided, only to watch the Cherokees battle back. Bradley held double-digit leads in three of the four quarters, but McMinn refused to waver, continuing to battle back although the last tie was 9-all.

"Every time we got close, Bradley would hit a shot, but that's what experienced teams do," McMinn coach Keith Elliott said.

Bradley continues to mix and match after the recent addition of Bryce Copeland to the lineup. The junior guard was playing in only his fourth game after returning from an injury suffered in the football team's final game. Chastain led the team with 17 points, with Miles Morgan adding 11 and Copeland 10.

"Continuity is big with this bunch," Smith said. "We've got guys returning to more familiar roles and we're starting to gain momentum, but I would have felt a lot better about tonight if we had finished how I wanted us to."

Nathan Simbeck led McMinn (9-7, 2-3) with 14 points. Brandon Davis had 13 and Hicks added 12.

Elliott said he was left pondering why he waited so late to press.

"You have to second-guess it afterward," he said. "It did make things happen and helped us get back in the game, but regardless, I'm proud of the guys. They may not be the most skilled team, but there's not a team out there with more heart."

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