MURFREESBORO — Mt. Juliet held a one-point lead over the USA’s No. 1-ranked team at halftime. But Blackman used a third-quarter surge to advance to Tennessee’s Class AAA girls’ championship game with a 55-46 victory Friday at Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Center.
Blackman used a 16-8 third period to take a 35-28 lead and the teams played basically evenly in the fourth quarter.
The Lady Blaze used their quickness and athleticism to harass the Lady Bears. Even inside, Mt. Juliet’s vaunted post game had to fight for all it could get.
“The credit goes to their post defense,” Mt. Juliet coach Chris Fryer said of Blackman’s 6-foot-3 Jazz Bond and 6-foot Alex Johnson. “Our guards handled better what I thought we would have trouble with [the Lady Blaze’s pressure] and their posts played outstanding.
“I thought they were fouling us a little bit in the post area and we weren’t getting a few calls we would get sometimes during the season. Usually, we jump high enough to get some of those calls. They did a good job keeping their hands up but I thought there was a little movement underneath. We stuck some shots there at different times but I thought it affected the way we shot the ball.”
“They gave us a pretty good fight and it was a taste of what college will be like so I really appreciated it,” said Mt. Juliet junior forward Ronjanae DeGray, who led the Lady Bears with 18 points. “I had to get acclimated to playing against posts who bang against us. It was all right once I got comfortable, in the rhythm of things.”
“We should have played a little better in the post, finished more,” said senior center Sally McCabe, who was held to nine points. “They have really athletic posts who can move around a lot. They’re a lot like us. You can’t count them out.”
The Lady Blaze got in the first blows and led 5-0. The Lady Bears battled to within 7-6. But Blackman kept the lead, going up 13-6 late in the first quarter.
During a lull in the action early in the second quarter, Fryer, loud enough to be heard across the court on press row, challenged his girls on the floor to step it up.
Senior guard Tyia Waller heard her coach, forcing three straight turnovers, including two off former teammate MeMe Jackson, as Mt. Juliet closed the first half with an 8-0 run for a 21-20 edge, the Lady Bears’ first, and as it turned out, only lead of the afternoon.
“I just challenged our post girls to show up and to post deep and to give us a target to throw to,” Fryer said after his 16th Lady Bears team ended a 30-2 season. “When we did that, we had an opportunity. They were doing a good job of pushing us out early before the ball comes in there. We always talk about all the dirty work is done before the ball gets there. We weren’t doing the dirty work early in the game.”
But Blackman reeled off an 11-2 run to open the second half to put Mt. Juliet in catch-up mode.
Sally McCabe’s turnaround basket in the post brought the Lady Bears within 30-36 in the fourth. But Blackman reeled off six straight points by Crystal Dangerfield, including a four-point trip around an intentional foul, to widen the lead back to nine.
Dangerfield, a sophomore point guard, tossed in 22 points while Jackson sank a pair of three-pointers on her way to 14 with four steals. Johnson had 10 inside as Blackman advanced to today’s championship game against Ridgeway with a 33-1 mark.
Raeyana DeGray dropped in 13 points and McCabe nine in her Lady Bear finale. Waller and Ashley Roby each drained a three-pointer.
Both teams shot 40 percent from the floor. But Blackman bagged 17 of 19 free throws while the Lady Bears had just nine chances from the line and made only three.
Mt. Juliet held a 31-28 rebounding edge and committed 15 turnovers to Blackman’s nine. The Lady Blaze had 11 steals.
“If the turnovers were under 20, I would have thought we would have a shot at them,” Fryer said. “And we did have a chance, and we let it sift through our hands. Maybe we’ll learn from it and be back here next year.”
McCabe, Waller, Haley DeWitt and Taylor Bounds will graduate after posting a four-year mark of 117-19.
“They’ve earned every one of those victories,” said Fryer, who quietly passed Tommy Martin [437 victories in 20 seasons] to become Mt. Juliet’s career wins leader during the season and has 451 victories against 84 losses in 16 seasons. “They’ve sweated and bled and cried, wanted to quit, wanted to stay. There are a lot of emotions that go into trying to be in this program and get to this point. It’s not easy.”