FRANKLIN — In 1986, Mt. Juliet’s girls made one of their 16 trips to the state tournament while the boys went 0-for-the season.
Thirty-two years and seven fruitless sectional trips later, the Golden Bears finally joined their girls among the final eight, punching their ticket to Murfreesboro by punching out Franklin 58-46 before a packed house in a TSSAA sectional Monday night.
“Our theme for the last three or four days is it’s time to knock the door down,” said Troy Allen, in his 13th season as Mt. Juliet coach. “Not many people have done what we’ve done the last four years (four straight sectionals). Getting to this game is special, special to be a part of. It’s something they’ll remember the rest of their lives. I was fortunate enough to play in three (with David Lipscomb in the ‘80s) and I’ll never forget them. This one was epic.”
Of the four previous sectionals under Allen, all on the road, this one was by far the loudest and most jam-packed.
“They have great crowds and I thought our crowd got behind us tonight,” Allen said.
The Bears established their inside game early on as big man Isaac Stephens cleared the glass and scored eight of his 17 points during the first quarter, which ended with an 11-7 Golden Bear lead.
“We wanted to get paint points,” Allen said. “We talked to my buddy, Coach (Jeremy) Moore at LaVergne, and he said to tell your bigs every shot is a set play to them. I tried to get that ingrained in their mind. Every time we threw it up there, it was a set play for the big guys. Second half especially, we really started going inside.”
Franklin stayed in the game with the long ball as a triple by Reese Glover drew the Rebels within a point before Reed Kemp scored from underneath to put the home team in front 12-11.
But Gavin Wilson caught fire with the first of his six three-pointers, mostly from the corner, to put Mt. Juliet in front 14-12. He made it back-to-back for a five-point lead and Franklin never led again.
“(Wilson’s) a special shooter,” Allen said. “He’s got a lot of confidence. He’s not afraid to miss a shot and take the next one. He hit some huge ones.”
After two free throws by Glover tied the score, Wilson swished the go-ahead three from the top of the circle for a 20-17 lead and the Bears led the rest of the way.
Mt. Juliet, playing some four-corner offense to utilize the entire front court, milked the final minute of the first half before freshman post Riggs Abner, tipped in a miss for a 25-20 halftime lead.
“Riggs is fearless,” Allen said. “He’s a freshman. He’s going to be a great player. It’s why we brought him up this year. He’s played varsity all year long. He’s had some games where he’s barely played, but we’re not afraid to play him.”
The Bears continued to patiently execute its offense in the third quarter to keep the lead. Another Wilson three-pointer made it 37-30 going into the fourth quarter.
Mt. Juliet re-established Stephens down low after spreading the floor as the big man scored six down the stretch as the Bears improved to 27-7 for the season.
Wilson scored 18 points while point guard Jordan Lockridge drained a pair of threes and all four free throws in the fourth quarter for his 10. Abner, Will Pruitt and big man Bryan Aiken each finished with four.
Golver scored 16 points while Evan Sigler sank five triples of his own for 15 as Franklin, coached by longtime Beech coach Darrin Joines, finished a 28-6 season, one win short of its first state trip since winning it all in 1989.
“I pulled out my old play cards (against Joines’ Beech teams), I watched three of four old Beech games,” Allen said. “We’re good friends. We compete hard against each other. It’s one thing knowing how you want to attack, but it’s another thing for your players to understand how it is because it’s something different. We practiced for three days and sort of practiced this morning, and we got better and better at it.”
The state meeting for coaches was held Tuesday in Murfreesboro to finalize the brackets for the state tournament, which will tip off March 14 at Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Center.
“I could care less who we play,” Allen said. “We’re going to enjoy this. It’s a 10-day celebration to me. We get 10 extra days of practice. We’re going to have a good time. We’re going to work hard like we do. We’re going to do a lot of fun things. We’re going to practice at colleges. We’re going to have dinners.
“We’re going to enjoy this.”
By Andy Reed