But the experience gained over the last few weeks will be invaluable as the senior-free Lady Bears move forward.
Mt. Juliet jumped to a 7-0 lead and the Lady Bears led the entire first quarter until a steal by Madison Griggs led to a layup by Destinee Wells to put Houston ahead 18-16 at the buzzer.
That was part of a 10-0 Lady Mustang run, which was a subset of Houston’s 22-2 spurt which saw the Germantown visitors go up 33-18 during the second quarter.
Mt. Juliet trimmed the margin to 37-27 by halftime and later climbed to within 12 on two occasions after falling behind by 22.
“They were hot in the first half,” Mt. Juliet coach Chris Fryer said. “We scored 27 points before the half, which is usually a pretty good night. But they had 37 and they had really shot the ball well. I hadn’t seen them shoot from the perimeter like that in any of the films that I had watched… They didn’t hit early. But once they got hot, everybody got hot.
“That was discouraging to play that well in the first half and be behind by 10.”
Houston’s quickness led to 15 Lady Bear turnovers, which led to nine more shots and seven more baskets for the Lady Mustangs, who were led by Jayla Hemingway’s 26 points, including a pair of three-pointers. Wells scored 17 and passed for four assists as HHS returned to Friday’s semifinal with a 27-5 record.
“It’s something I got to learn from,” Mt. Juliet sophomore point guard Nevaeh Majors said. “I got a lot of mine (passes) deflected, so I’m going to grow over the summer and improve for next season because we’re going to face it again and I want to make sure I can handle it next time.”
“We knew coming over here we’d be playing against some really good athletes,” Fryer said. “They’ve got some quickness and some super-quick hands. Hemingway is tough to guard, tough to handle and very physical. They’re a very physical basketball team. It may not look like it sometimes on film, but their physicality is pretty good.
“Our kids did a good job of hanging in there. But right now, we need to grow and mature to be able to handle a team like that.”
Houston didn’t have a consistent answer for sophomore center Emma Palmer, who led all scorers with 27 points. Tondrianna Davis took down 10 rebounds as she, Shelby Jane Petty and Nevaeh Majors each scored seven. Ryleigh Osborne opened the game with a three-pointer and Aaliyah Frazier got the bounce on a second-half triple as Mt. Juliet finished a 24-9 season.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster for next year,” Palmer said. “Our team has a better chance now that we’ve been here of getting back here next year.”
“We’re hoping we’ve planted a seed in their heads of wanting to get back to the state tournament,” Fryer said following the conclusion of his 20th season and ninth state tourney. “Everybody’s going to be returning next year. We’ve had this incident happen in the past with our teams. In ’05 we won a championship after being beat in ’03. We’re hoping our kids are hungry and know how important our offseason conditioning program is going to be and how important it’s going to be to come over here and be more physical and to be able to handle some of the situations we didn’t handle so well tonight.”
Fryer indicated playing in the state with an underclass roster is key to future success.
“What you don’t want to do is ending up getting over here with a bunch of seniors who’ve never been,” Fryer said. “It’s good that our girls are young and they’re going to have more opportunities and more chances. I’ve seen teams battle and they finally get over here with a senior group. Daniel Boone’s a good example (a 56-27 loser to unbeaten Bradley Central). They’re a good basketball team and they’re senior-dominated. Well, it gets too late when you’re seniors. You need to come over here and experience it so it doesn’t overwhelm you. I didn’t think our girls were overwhelmed by the environment. They played their basketball game, just tonight it wasn’t good enough to win.”