MURFREESBORO — Mt. Juliet’s girls rolled past Jefferson County in a state tournament quarterfinal not as close as the 65-37 final Wednesday at Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Center.
Led by the towering trio of Sally McCabe and twins Raeyana and Ronjanae DeGray, Mt. Juliet used an early 10-0 run to leave Jefferson County’s 3-2 edge a distant memory. A 20-0 spurt made it 32-6 late in the first half as the Lady Bears advanced to Friday’s 11:30 a.m. semifinal against tournament favorite Blackman with a 30-1 record.
McCabe shook off a first-quarter ankle injury to lead the Lady Bears with 20 points and seven rebounds while Ronjanae DeGray added 18 points and six rebounds. Raeyana DeGray supplied seven points and six caroms while Skye Riggan rang up a pair of three-pointers for her six, Tyia Waller five, Summer Adams four in the fourth, Ashley Roby a three and Tavie Bell two down the stretch.
Mt. Juliet shot almost 70 percent from the floor while Jefferson County had to climb from a 15-percent first half to finish at 37.1 as the Lady Patriots finished a 22-12 campaign. The Lady Bears dominated the boards 30-8.
“They shoot about 40 percent on the season and we’re shooting near 60 or more because we take higher-percentage shots,” Mt. Juliet coach Chris Fryer said. “When you do that, you could turn the ball over more… It’s a hard offense to run. But when it’s operating well, it’s a machine and you can get people touch-passing the ball and moving the ball, it gives you a chance to get high-percentage shots.”
No one scored in double figures for Jefferson County, a team in its first state tournament in 31 years. The Lady Patriots, whose tallest players are listed at 5-11, had trouble getting good looks inside against the towering trio. They often seemed to be throwing up shots which may have only hit the glass, if anything.
“We saw some of that on film and some of those balls went in,” Fryer said. “We thought it was an East Tennessee shot. We saw a one-legged hook shot go in. They knocked a lot of those shots down. But I don’t think they had as tall a kids with their hands held high trying to keep our hands hit and making their shots more difficult.
“And he’s [coach Rick Sinard] has a young team. They did a great job getting here and they have a chance to get here again. I think his point guard and post are both freshmen. They have one senior starter. They did a good job beating Farragut and some others to get here.”
The Lady Bears led 59-19 late in the third quarter before Jefferson County won the fourth 16-6 during a running clock against the Mt. Juliet bench.
The lone possible drawback for Mt. Juliet came when McCabe rolled her ankle while scoring a layup just past the midway mark of the first quarter. But after trainer Christina Ross worked on her behind the bench, the 6-foot-3 Belmont-signee was back on the floor for the second quarter.
“It was pretty scary to think she might not be there,” Mt. Juliet coach Chris Fryer said of possibly losing McCabe. “She’s been leading us in rebounds, scoring and assists, so we need her out there on the floor. It’s not just for the scoring…we have other girls who can score, but a lot of times she’s on the tail end of that where she’s made the pass…and she has that heighth. When she’s out there on the wing, 6-3, she can see Ron or Rae and finish.”
And it’s not just the heighth. There’s also the strength. The DeGrays, both juniors, routinely overpower defenders in the post for baskets.
“If we don’t work out in the weight room – Rae goes in and works out on her own, she’s become a beast in that weight room,” Fryer said.
“I started off with just the bar,” said Raeyana, who transferred with her sister to Mt. Juliet from Cane Ridge following their freshman seasons. “And balanced some extra weight on the side.”
“And Ron is coming off that ACL tear from last year or we would have been sitting here last year, I believe,” Fryer said of Ronjanae, who injured her knee in last year’s Region 5-AAA final against Beech. Without the Lady Bears’ leading scorer, they lost the sectional at Brentwood. “She’s just a year away from that surgery. The kid at UT, the linebacker, never came back all year. So we’re fortunate to have Ron back out there. And to have her play as well as she’s playing and to be such a leader on the floor, we’re truly blessed.”
Mt. Juliet is in the semifinals for the first time since winning the title in 2005. The Lady Bears drew eventual champion Riverdale in 2010 and ’12 in the quarterfinal. McCabe was a sophomore two years ago.
“It means the world to be in the semifinal game,” McCabe said. “It was definitely a big motivation to win this game. It feels really good to be here.”
Fryer, in his seventh state tournament in his 16th season as coach, is past the first round for the third time. He said the Lady Bears are still improving and cited last week’s region final win over Rossview as being key.
“We’ve been here before and won in the first round and not played as well,” Fryer said. “I was excited to see the last few games, we’ve gotten better. When you’re getting better at the end of the season, that means you have kids who are paying attention and are hungry to do more. Sometimes you get to the end of the season, kids get satisfied to a degree.
“The Rossview game, we had to hunker down on Rossview’s floor to beat them and I saw a turning point there. We had played pretty good, but we had not played in that kind of environment. I thought this team could so some special things.”
Blackman improved to 32-1 with a 52-38 win over Houston. The Lady Blaze’s point guard, junior Meme Jackson, started as a freshman for Mt. Juliet in the state two years ago. She recently committed to the Tennessee Lady Vols, which would make her the first former Lady Bear to play for UT.
“We do know the Blackman girls and these girls know the Blackman girls,” Fryer said. “They’ve played with them in the AAU and they know how talented [Crystal] Dangerfield is and the abilities of [Micah] Norris and some of the other girls.
“We’ll just get to work. Playing on Wednesday, the way they’ve got the format now [AAA teams play Wednesday instead of Thursday], we get a day in between. Maybe that day will help us.”
Jefferson County’s previous state tournament appearance was a first-round loss in 1983 to Mt. Juliet, which went on to win the championship. John Simms was the assistant to Tommy Martin then and is one to Fryer now.
The star of that Lady Patriot team was Carolyn Peck, who went on to play at Vanderbilt, assisted Pat Summit at Tennessee and won a national championship at Purdue before going to Florida where she was the coach before MJHS-alum Amanda Butler. She is now a women’s college basketball analyst for ESPN.
In the other bracket, Rossview beat Morristown West 52-47 and Ridgeway defeated Bradley Central 53-45, setting up a Friday morning semifinal at 10 a.m.
The championship game will be at 2 p.m. Saturday.