HENDERSONVILLE — The region semifinals is one of the most pressure-packed games on the high school basketball calendar.
So close to the sectional and yet one slip up and all a team has worked for during the better part of the previous year is gone.
The key to Mt. Juliet’s 57-41 Region 5-AAA semifinal win over arch-rival Wilson Central on Tuesday was relaxing.
“This game is a hard game to play, the most stressful game you’ll play all season, in your career, the region semifinal game,” second-year Mt. Juliet coach Troy Allen said after his Golden Bears safely arrived in the sectional for the first time since 2000. “We came out tight. That was probably my fault. We probably did a little too much. Second half, we just got back to our basics and really got after them defensively.”
Central never trailed in the first half as the Wildcats jumped to a 9-2 lead. But the Bears battled back and went ahead for the first time on Antwuan Majors’ pullup jumper midway through the third quarter to break a 30-30 tie. He followed with a three-pointer and by the time Mt. Juliet’s 9-0 run was finished, the Bears had the momentum.
The Wildcats never got closer than five points early in the fourth quarter as Mt. Juliet dropped in 10 of 15 free throws in the final eight minutes to advance to Thursday’s 7 p.m. final against Clarksville, a 43-36 winner over LaVergne in Tuesday’s late game.
Thursday’s winner will host a sectional on Monday while the loser goes to either Franklin or Whites Creek. The Bears [21-10] had been in the sectional three previous times since the early ’90s, but have not won the region or been to the Boys State Tournament in anyone’s memory.
“We want to win the championship,” Allen said. “I don’t know when Mt. Juliet’s won a championship. Not many people can tell me. When I got to Mt. Juliet, we talked about winning a championship. It’s nice to be in the substate, it’s hard to do. But when I first got the job, we talked about winning championships. We don’t have one championship plaque hanging, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Central does have some championship hardware, including the recently-won District 9-AAA title acquired on the same Beech High floor seven days earlier. But the Wildcats will win no more this year as their season ended at 22-11.
Daniel Palmer’s three-point play lifted Central back to a 23-16 lead midway through the second quarter. But Mt. Juliet scored seven straight points to tie the score for the first time when Demond Craig picked up a loose-ball rebound and raced the length of the floor for a layup in the final minute of the half.
Free throws by Kody Woodard and Arcavius McMurray put Central back in front 26-23 by halftime.
“We just guard, that’s what we do,” Allen said of the second half. “We’re good defensively. I think we shut them down in the second half.”
The rivals split the regular-season series with each winning on the road. Mt. Juliet was officially the visiting team Tuesday on the neutral floor.
“These guys are neighbors; everybody knows everybody,” Allen said. “When we do our scouting reports and they know as much as I know about their players, which is pretty rare.”
Craig connected for a pair of three-pointers on his way to 17 points while Majors flipped in 5 of 6 free throws en route to 12. Jeremy Dixon dropped in 11, Robert Hill seven, Jonta Bowman and Berek Lunn four each and Cory Payne and Jeremy Starks two each.
Center Travis Adkins muscled in 13 points for Central while Woodard added eight, Kelten Stewart and JaJuan Brooks each finished with five and McMurray and Palmer three apiece.
While the Bears and Wildcats [Clarksville’s version] get ready for Thursday, Wilson Central’s girls and Northeast will play for the girls’ championship at 7 p.m. tonight at Beech with the winner hosting a sectional Saturday and the loser going to either Antioch or Brentwood.
Commanders finally put away pesky Yellow Jackets
WATERTOWN — Like the Mt. Juliet-Central game, Tuesday’s Region 4-A semifinal between Trousdale County and Friendship Christian featured two teams who know everything about the other, having played three previous times this year, including last week’s district tournament.
The pressure was no less intense. But Friendship used a 10-0 run to fire out to a big first-quarter lead and the Commander defense kept the Yellow Jackets at bay in a 49-32 victory.
“Anytime you get one of those win-or-go-home games, it’s always a pressure cooker,” said fourth-year Friendship coach Matt Bradshaw, whose Commanders are in the region finals for the first time since 2001. “A team you face three times previously, you know each other like the back of your hand. [Trousdale] coach [Mike] Potts does a good job with his group. Give him a ton of credit for getting his team where they were at this point in time.
“Basically, you just got to get your kids to go out and make plays and this group tonight did a fantastic job of going out and making plays.”
John Hatcher hit two first-quarter three-pointers as the Commanders claimed a 13-4 lead. Center Michael Teeter led Friendship with 14 while his backup, Cameron Spaulding, came off the bench for eight big points.
“That’s what we got to have out of Teeter,” Bradshaw said. “He’s the leader of our team and he does what he’s supposed to.
“But the biggest line is Cameron Spaulding off the bench with eight points, big points in the second half. He did a fantastic job off the bench. He gave us great minutes, boarded well. If I had a game ball, that’s who I would give it to.”
Friendship led 21-10 at halftime as Trousdale hit just 2 of 17 shots from the floor. The Yellow Jackets got no closer than nine points in the third quarter as their Cinderella run ended at 12-18.
Hatcher notched nine points while Adam Stephens finished with five, John Doak and Garrett McKnight four each, Parker Teeter three and Lee Maasen two for the Commanders, who will bring a 24-5 mark into Thursday’s 6:30 p.m. championship game against Pickett County.
The Bobcats improved to 27-8 by finally disposing of Jackson County [23-9] 43-38 in overtime before a packed house in Tuesday’s first game. Thursday’s winner will host a sectional Monday night while the loser travels to the Chattanooga area. This is Friendship’s sixth substate since 1986, all on the road as the Commanders have never won a region title or advanced to the Boys State Tournament.
Yet Thursday’s game will have a little less pressure since it’s the final non-elimination game of the season.
“Play loose on Thursday to see if you’ll play a home game or not,” Bradshaw said.
The Region 4-A girls’ final will be held at 6:30 p.m. tonight at Watertown as Jackson County takes on Clarkrange.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 17 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.