CLEVELAND, Tenn. (WRCB) -- The TSSAA state basketball tournament used to be a regular part of the schedule for Bradley Central girls basketball.
The Bearettes boast five state titles and 14 sub-state championships as part of a rich tradition forged by legendary coach Jim Smiddy, for whom their gym is named.
And that's why their 12-year state tournament drought seems like an eternity.
"That's a long time for this place," said head coach Jason Reuter. "The fans are hungry and the community is hungry, so the kids know what's riding on this."
It's not like the program has collapsed in recent years.
Bradley Central is 79-11 over the past three seasons, winning three straight district and region titles.
The Bearettes have played in six sub-state games since their last state tournament appearance in 2001, including two straight home dates at Jim Smiddy Arena.
Each time they've inched closer to a state berth, only to endure another heart-breaking loss.
"Last year we definitely should have gone to state. Losing by one point in overtime was tough," said junior post Rebecca Reuter about 2012's 44-43 home sectional loss to Lawrence County. "We're all in right now because this game means everything to us."
Matchups have been the biggest obstacle.
The top two finishers form Chattanooga's Region 3 annually draw the top two from Murfreesboro's Region 4 in the sub-state bracket in the TSSAA's playoff format. Region 4 has produced seven state champions since 2000 (Shelbyville 4, Riverdale 3).
"It's by far the toughest region in the state that we're up against each year," Jason Reuter said.
This year's challenge is fourth-ranked Blackman, who beat Bradley Central in Cleveland two years ago. This year's Lady Blaze have just four losses, all coming against top-ranked Murfreesboro rival Riverdale.
"I'm the type of player that loves the challenge, so I'm looking forward to the competition," said point guard Whitney Donaldson, a transfer from Morristown West. "I haven't played with these girls in any of the previous sub-state games, but I've kind of taken on their motivation as my own because I hate that my teammates had to experience those losses."
Last year's loss was especially tough, considering Bradley Central graduated six seniors.
This year's team lost starting point guard Chelsea Summers to a season-ending injury before the first game, but still managed to dominate District 5-AAA. In fact, the third-ranked Bearettes have yet to lose to a team from the state of Tennessee this season, falling only to North Carolina's Millbrook and perennial Georgia power Wesleyan.
And they're on a mission to keep that streak alive.
"I cannot even put into words how much I want this," junior post Brooke Copeland said. "We've been working all season with last year's loss in the back of our heads. It was always our reminder to keep pushing harder every day to get back to this point this season."
The Bearettes will try to make the most of their latest opportunity at 7 p.m. ET Saturday night. A near sell-out crowd is expected to arrive early at Jim Smiddy Arena, and hopefully stay late for a state tournament celebration.
"We've been knocking on this door the last two years," said Jason Reuter," and I think now it's the time to kick that door down."
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