George Page • Mt. Juliet News
Mt. Juliet senior center Isaac Stephens drives down the side of the lane for a fourth-quarter basket.
MURFREESBORO — Mt. Juliet used the toughness and tenaciousness which have been trademarks throughout coach Troy Allen’s tenure to stay close to Bearden for three quarters in the Golden Bears’ first-ever state tournament game Wednesday afternoon at Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Center.
But the Bulldogs’ talent took over in the fourth as the Knoxvillians advanced to the semifinals with a 61-43 win in a game which was closer than the final score.
Bearden scored the game’s first seven points as the Bulldogs’ fullcourt man defense kept the guards from getting open.
But the Bears battled back by giving the ball to big man Isaac Stephens in the high post. The 6-foot-7 senior drove to the basket for 14 points before fouling out.
“We wanted to touch (Stephens),” Allen said. “He’s obviously become a great player. We try to touch him and space out. They did a really nice job guarding Isaac one on one and staying home. There wasn’t a lot of looks. He had to score because they were staying home on our shooters. Kudos to them. They did a nice job of that.”
But Bearden guards Trent Stephney (19 points) and Jacques Glover (10) proved too much for the Bears. Big man Drew Pember (6-8) finished with 15 points and eight rebounds, many down the stretch as the Bulldogs advanced to Friday’s semis with a 38-1 record where they lost to Memphis East.
Mt. Juliet’s season ended at 27-8.
But the Bears didn’t go quietly as they battled to within 9-7 at the first-quarter break and 25-21 at halftime despite an 11-1 deficit in fouls called at one point of the first half.“We want to be physical. I’ll be the last one to ever complain about officials,” Allen said. “I’ll never use anything as an excuse. They did fine. The guys adjusted. We did a nice job the first half hanging in there in foul trouble. Our coaches did a good job getting guys in and out when they had two fouls. We didn’t have anybody with three fouls. They played smart with two fouls. It’s not the time to sit people with two fouls and get through the half. You can lose the game right there and we weren’t going to lose the game that way.”
Mt. Juliet finally took the lead midway through the third quarter when guard Will Pruitt passed up a rare open three-pointer to drive to the basket and eventually score on a tip-in for a 26-25 Bear edge.
“I wanted (Pruitt) to shoot it and he went ahead and made the two and Jordan (Lockridge) hit some threes late,” Allen said. “We struggled getting open from three. They were really focused on certain people, (Gavin) Wilson and Jordan and Will, not letting them get open from three. They were not getting any easy looks, and we usually get a few with a couple of things we run.”
The lead didn’t last long as Glover scored on the other side.
Pruitt came back with a driving layup for a 28-27 Mt. Juliet edge at the midway mark of the period.
Pember sank a three-pointer from the top of the key to put Bearden back in front to stay as the Bulldogs embarked on a 10-0 run despite Stephens blocking a Pember dunk attempt at the third-quarter buzzer.
With the game getting out of hand, senior guard Lockridge took some deep threes and hit three on his way to 13 points.
Pruitt added eight points while Bryan Aiken and Isaac Thompson each threw in three and Riggs Abner two on a putback.
Lockridge, Stephens and reserve forward Bailey Bryant donned the Bears jersey for the final time after setting new program standards with four straight sectionals, a first-ever district championship and first trip to state. Their leadership was key to Mt. Juliet getting off the deck after falling behind early, Allen said.
“I’ve been watching them play since they were little kids at camp,” Allen said. “Just the way they’ve grown up and become men. It’s not an easy thing to go through what we do and they’d be the first to tell you it’s not for everybody. Their leadership and the way they’ve grown into men right in front of my eyes, that’s why we were able to hang in.
“Our other senior who’s not in (the interview room) should be in here because he means just as much as these guys. We’ve got three pretty good men playing for us.”
“It is a big accomplishment,” Lockridge said. “Me and Isaac, we’ve been working since freshman year, we’ve been in the weight room, been in the gym working hard all the time. We just tried to get our game better and finally got over that hump.”
Stephens’ growth spurt has made him as big a force in the post as anyone around.
“I haven’t always been strong,” said Stephens, who added he’s received interest from Martin Methodist and some junior colleges. “I’ve gotten hurt a couple of times. Coming back from that, getting into the gym, working, getting stronger has helped me.”
Allen has built a no-frills, blue-collar built on physicality and defense. It’s not always pretty, but the Bears have become consistent winners under the Nashville native, who’s most likely the program’s winningest coach.
“The future is bright,” Allen said. “We have a system we believe in, especially defensively. Offensively, we’ll tweak it and do what we need to do. To play for Mt. Juliet, you have to be dedicated and you got to be pretty smart because we’re not going to do the same thing every game. We had four defenses we could have used tonight, and they’re man-to-man-based. We tweak it.
“It’s not an easy place to play, and I don’t want it to be.”
Allen, in his 13th season, came to Mt. Juliet from a successful run at Hillsboro. Tim Bell, an MJHS graduate who enjoyed a run of success during a long tenure as Golden Bear coach, said people advised him when he took the boys’ position it was a dead-end job next to the ultra-successful girls’ program.
“I got a couple of calls like that when I took it, from coaches wondering why I was leaving,” Allen said. “First of all, I knew who the principal was there (Mel Brown). He called me and I trust that man with everything. I knew if he wanted me there I needed to look at it and take a serious look at it.
“It’s the best decision I’ve made in my life. We were having success at Hillsboro. We had built a program there. But for my family and living in Mt. Juliet, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done.”
By Andy Reed