SPRINGFIELD — They endured The Dunk as freshmen and The blowout as sophomores. But Mt. Juliet’s seniors are going out for the first time in Golden Bear boys’ basketball history as region champions after finally knocking off Northeast in the 5-AAA final 53-44 last Thursday night.
What did in Northeast was an early barrage of 3-pointers by Gage Wells, who buried four first-quarter triples after the Eagles scored first. When Riggs Abner nailed a 3 from the top of the key early in the second quarter, it ended a 19-0 run for a 19-2 Mt. Juliet lead.
“We were ready to play,” said 16-year Mt. Juliet coach Troy Allen, whose Bears had finished second some six times after Tim Bell’s teams reached three sectionals as region runners up in the 1990s. “We talked about being fearless. They’re as talented as anybody we’ve played all year. That’s the reason we scheduled East Nashville, McGavock, played Hillsboro twice, Siegel twice, just to be ready to play in a game like this. Obviously, we were ready.
“That’s scary, you get a lead like that, you’ve spent a lot of emotion. We were pretty excited. You knew they were going to chip away and get back in it.”
The Eagles answered the 19-0 run with 10 straight of their own. They twice came within five, 24-19 and 26-21, early in the second half before Mt. Juliet put them behind the eight-ball with a 9-0 run for a 42-24 cushion late in the third quarter.
“We weathered the storm,” Allen said. “We did a really, really nice job about 90% of the time of reaching their shooters and not letting their shooters get shots. (Marcus Averhart) got loose a couple of times (a team-high nine on three 3s in the second half), but we did a really nice job on (Averhart) and Isaiah Furrior (who was held scoreless).”
Wells finished with six triples and 22 points while Charles Clark added 11, tournament Most Valuable Player Will Pruitt seen, Mo Ruttlen five and Abner and Isaac Thompson four each as Mt. Juliet moved to 28-3. Thompson, Clark and Wells joined Pruitt on the all-tournament team.
As freshmen, the Bears watched as their older teammates led Northeast from the opening tip at Lebanon until a game-ending dunk snatched the championship. Playing on their floor a year later, the Eagles escaped the Blue Devils in controversial fashion in the semifinals before winning handily over Mt. Juliet in the championship, though MJ bounced back to reach its only state tournament to date by winning the sectional at Franklin. Both teams were knocked off in the region semifinals last year.
“I got a mature team,” Allen said. “They’ve won over 100 games, won three district championships, now a region championship, been to the state tournament. I can’t say enough about those four guys (seniors Pruitt, Thompson Wells and student assistant Jalen Merricks). They’re special people.”
Northeast took a 25-5 record to Hillsboro on Monday while Summit came to Mt. Juliet for the Golden Bears’ first-ever Monday-night sectional at home.
“It’s a nice deal,” Allen said. “Hopefully, some people can come out and we can do something for them.”
Mt. Juliet’s boys and Lebanon’s girls endured the overnight tornado which affected both communities, leaving LHS dark for days. While the scripts had yet to be finished, a look back at history can provide some context.
A fire burned down Mt. Juliet’s gym (now Mt. Juliet Middle) in the winter of 1977. Coach Larry Joe Inman won the Bearettes’ first state championship that season after practicing and playing home games at Mt. Juliet Junior High, which opened that year.
This week’s tornado severely damaged MJJH, which became West Wilson Middle School in 2001. Allen, who lives closer to the strip of destruction than any of his players, drove through the devastation earlier in the day.
“I was real emotional,” said Allen, who had to pause as he recounted the drive. “I talked to our assistant baseball coach (first-year assistant Roy McGinty) who lost everything and just adopted a son.
“He was as good as he could possibly be in a situation like him. There’s hundreds of people in that situation. Hopefully, we can make them forget about it for a minute and help some people out and do some things Monday night to help some more people out.”