Second-half spurt seals MJ’s trip to 5-AAA semifinals

Gage Wells (11) posted 20 points and 11 rebounds for Mt. Juliet in the Golden Bears’ Region 5-AAA tournament triumph over Kenwood.

MT. JULIET — Mt. Juliet’s boys were never in real danger of an upset, but it wasn’t until a big run midway through the second half that the Golden Bears dispatched visiting Kenwood from the Region 5-AAA tournament with a first-round 70-41 win Saturday night.

After spotting Kenwood a 1-0 lead, Mt. Juliet jumped to an 8-3 advantage on a three-point play and 3-point basket by Gage Wells. Kenwood, congesting the post area on defense and blocking some shots, stayed within striking distance until the Golden Bears reeled off 17 straight points, including a buzzer-beating 3 by Wells at the end of the third quarter for a 47-29 lead, to go up 53-29 early in the fourth as MJ moved on with a 26-3 record to tonight’s semifinal against Clarksville, a 71-48 winner over Beech, at Springfield.

“They’re a pretty good team,” Mt. Juliet coach Troy Allen said of the 17-14 Knights. “They’ve beaten some pretty good teams this year. They have a great player and they have two really good guards. They were hitting shots.

“We made an adjustment. (Scooter) Williams was blocking a lot of shots and we weren’t doing a good job of finishing inside even when he wasn’t blocking them. So we made a little adjustment in the third quarter to get him out on her perimeter where he couldn’t block as many shots. We had a real good end of the third quarter. We tried to pick up our pressure a little bit and finally started working. Think we wore them down a little bit.”

Wells threw in three triples to lead all scorers with 20 points while Will Pruitt put in 10 of his 14 in the fourth quarter and Riggs Abner eight of his 10 in the first. Isaac Thompson scored all seven of his tallies in the second half while Charles Clark, Mo Ruttlen and Osize Daniyan each finished with four, Zach Blair a first-quarter 3 and Paxton Davidson two.

Jaylen Washington sank three triples to lead Kenwood with 14 points.

Next, Mt. Juliet faced the hurdle where Gallatin surprised the Golden Bears with a semifinal loss last year. And for all MJ has accomplished over the last half dozen years, about five sectionals, a state tournament and three straight District 9-AAA championships, the Bears are still seeking their first region title.

“We’ve won this game either 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 6 years,” Allen said of the semifinals. “It is what it is. It’s not about last year. It’s a new team. We’ll be ready to play. Clarksville’s got three really good guards. We’ve seen them a bunch and we know them so we’ll be ready to play.”

In the other bracket are Station Camp and Northeast. Tuesday’s winners will meet for the championship at 7 p.m. Thursday and advance to next Monday’s sectional.

Bears turn back Bison to threepeat as 9-AAA champsGLADEVILLE — After not winning a district championship during the history of basketball at the school until two years ago, Mt. Juliet’s boys pulled off a threepeat Tuesday night after being extended by Station Camp in a 57-47 championship-game victory at Wilson Central.

After blistering through most of the District 9-AAA schedule, Mt. Juliet was derailed by the Bison two weeks ago. Station Camp made a strong bid to make it two straight wins over the Golden Bears, putting together a 13-1 run to forge a 17-17 tie late in the first half and extending it to 16-4 to tie the game 20-20 by halftime.

Despite an 8-0 Mt. Juliet run which opened a 30-25 lead during the third quarter, Station Camp twice led by one in the fourth quarter before the Golden Bear finally put the Bison away with 11 straight for a 46-36 lead.

“We had some guys sort of stepping outside their comfort zone in the first half,” Mt. Juliet coach Troy Allen said after his Bears improved to 25-3. “They’re good. Both teams know each other so well. We sort of got it back all together in the third quarter and we started running. They had slowed us down. We were able to pick up our press… We did a great job on the glass. We’ve had back-to-back games where we’ve done a great job on the defensive glass.”

Allen, named the district’s Coach of the Year following the game, said after the earlier loss to Station Camp that the Bison gave Mt. Juliet more matchup problems than other teams.

“The main thing is we changed a couple of matchups,” Allen said. “We put (Charles) Clark on (Kavon Blankenship) and put our best defender on (Eli Thurston), who’s been playing really well. We switched things up with our press. We didn’t trap that much. We didn’t want to leave them open to shoot threes. We trapped a little bit more the first time.

“Coach (Michael) Berardi had the scout and did an amazing job.”

Will Pruitt, the Red Rocket who was named district and tournament Most Valuable Player, started out sizzling hot with a couple of threes and eight first-quarter points. Though he was slowed scoring-wise the middle two periods, he finished with a flurry, getting 12 in the fourth to finish with 24.

“He was ready, he came out shooting it,” Allen said of the future Lipscomb Bison. “It’s like having a blankey, having a point guard like that. ‘What do you want to run, son? Tell me’. I’ve never done that in my life. When things aren’t going good, ‘What do you want to run?’, and he’ll call the right thing.”

Pruitt called the No. 5 of Isaac Thompson, who tossed in all 13 of his points in the second half. Clark collected nine points, Riggs Abner and Gage Wells five each and Mo Ruttlen a free throw.

After a scoreless first quarter, Thurston brought the Bison back into the game with nine of his 17 points in the second quarter. Blankenship had seven of his 13 in the fourth as Station Camp slipped to 21-10.

“We’ve started doing more ones vs. twos in practice,” Allen said of trying to ratchet up the competition for the Bears. “We’ve had a lot of, I don’t know if they’re easy wins, but big wins. We haven’t played, since early in the year, a lot of close games. You got to learn how to play them, even with an experienced team like we have. We did a pretty good job tonight except making free throws.”

Now the Golden Bears have a third straight district championship plaque for the trophy case.

“It’s a credit to these guys and how hard they work, how they can deal with us and keep coming back every day,” said Allen, in his 16th season at Mt. Juliet. “There’s a lot of places where you can’t coach and these guys accept coaching. They don’t take things personal when we get on them. We’ll fight them, make them do things they don’t want to do like lift weights tomorrow. They just do it. It’s a credit to everybody before them what we’ve built a real program.

“We expect greatness every day… We demand it out of them. We came so close so many times and then something would happen. It’s been a nice five or six years of playing at a pretty high level.”

Others may be tempted to say, “Break up the Bears”, which might elicit a chuckle under normal circumstances. But the opening of the new Green Hill High School this fall is expected to gut the boys’ basketball program as many of the freshmen and sophomores (seniors will graduate and juniors will have the option of staying at MJHS) are zoned to attend the new school, making it a sensitive matter for the Golden Bears, who are only guaranteed right now, which is Saturday’s 7 p.m. Region 5-AAA opener against visiting Kenwood with the winner advancing to the semifinal next Tuesday at Springfield.

“We don’t talk about it,” Allen said. “We’ve talked about it two times this year. I’m not going to talk about it. I’m going to coach this team. They deserve everything, all of our energy, no matter what’s happening this week, next week, what’s going on. To their credit, I’ve not heard a peep about it. It’s obvious it’s not bothering us. I was concerned about it bothering us, but it’s not bothering us. You play like that, you’re not worried about the future, you’re worried about right now.

“We got high-character guys. Our four seniors. I think it’s just the people I surround them with. I’ve got the best assistant coaches, probably in the state, that support everything I do. I’ve raised a couple of them, I think. They were young when they got here with me. The way they go about their business, it’s pretty incredible how hard they work. It’s every man we have.”

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