Christ Presbyterian Academy plays each game with a bullseye on their jerseys.
Any team that comes to the state tournament with a national ranking and a 34-2 record draws a crowd.
Despite losing 73-39 to CPA Thursday night, the Upperman Bees from Baxter did manage to have the best sign in the student cheering section.
“Jesus Loves Us For Free,'' it read, suggesting that having to pay tuition somehow gives Jesus a reason to pull for the underdog.
CPA senior Braxton Bonds defused the implication, just as effective and effortless as he leads the Lions on and off the court.
“That is true,'' Bonds said of the sign. “Jesus loves us all for free. God bless.''
It was Braxton and Braxton that pushed the Lions into the semifinals against Jackson South Side Friday, a team that they beat in last year's Class AA championship game
Braxton Bonds had 20 points, eight assists, six rebounds, two steals and only two turnovers in 28 minutes.
The other half of the Braxtons, Braxton Blackwell, added a double-double with 14 points, 10 rebounds. He filled the stat sheet with four steals, three assists and a blocked shot. The 6-8 sophomore drew most of Upperman's defensive game plan, but the Bees couldn't cover everyone.
Former CPA star Jalen Lindsey drove five hours from Huntington, West Virginia to see his teammates play. It was never a game after CPA shook off some early jitters.
“I was a little nervous in the beginning and before the game. This is our third time coming, but later on in the game we were able to control our nerves and obviously play a little better,'' Braxton Blackwell said. “Having a lot of defensive turnovers caused us to get going.''
“Defense is very important,'' added Bonds, nephew of baseball's Barry Bonds. “That always leads to our easy offense, as long as we are getting deflections and getting hands on balls. Our game is transition, so we get most of our points with our transition.''
CPA Coach Drew Maddux knows all about early game jitters. He had them as a player at Goodpasture and it allowed him to let his players play through it without taking a time out.
“I wanted them to play through their rhythm. I thought if I did call a time out it would drive their hyper-sensitivity even more,'' Maddux said. “They know how much I believe in them and trust them. I wanted them to play through it and I thought the pace of the game was where we wanted it to be. We shot 55 percent for the season so I knew the percentages were going to bounce back and these guys were going to convert.''
Upperman put up a stiff fight, playing as hard as they could. But they were giving up too much length and height to the Lions.
Taking a 34-23 lead into intermission, the Lions came out breathing fire in the final two quarters. They outscored the Bees 39-16 and it was never in doubt.
Upperman's Cody DeVillanueva was the only Bee in double figures. He led all scorers with 27 points in 28 minutes. No other Bee scored more than six points and only five players scored.
“We knew who they were and if we had to lose, you want to lose to the best,'' DeVillanueva said.
“Their preparation is unlike anything I've seen,'' said Upperman's coach, Bobby McWilliams. “They are good players and good kids. They understand what's going on.''
Upperman finished 29-8, but had nothing to hang their head about.
This is a CPA team that doesn't showboat, doesn't lose its cool and plays hard to the end. Maddux had them prepared.
“You don't see everything [Maddux] does behind the scene,'' said senior Jake Allsmiller, who added 15 points. “He gets us ready for the games and prepared. He worries about the X's and O's but he also worries about the locker room and how we interact in there and love each other.''
They hang out with each other off the court. When it comes to choosing a movie on a night out, that falls on Braxton Bonds' shoulders.
“I plan everything,'' Bonds said, leaving no doubt.
They can smell another championship. Two more wins will make their goal come true.
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.