J.R. Sanders staked Mt. Juliet to a 5-0 lead and scored the Bears’ first nine points before Independence sicced Mac James on the MJ scoring star, making points harder to come by.
Meanwhile, Independence overcame a slow shooting start to climb back into the game. The Eagles took their first lead at 8-7 on a steal and layup by James. The first non-Sanders Mt. Juliet points came from center Isaac Stephens on a left-hander in the post at the first-quarter buzzer to break a 9-9 tie.
The teams battled back and forth deep into the third quarter, pausing for halftime with Independence ahead 23-21. Two free throws by Greg Miller with 4:22 left in the third quarter put the Eagles in front 26-24 and the home team went on to build a 35-30 lead early in the fourth quarter.
But the Bears battled back with what turned out to be their final run. Terrell Wilson went coast to coast for a layup to put Mt. Juliet in front 39-38. Sanders drove the lane and dished to senior Joey Hayes, who got a three-pointer to go down from the corner to put Mt. Juliet in front 41-39. A pullup jumper in the lane by Sanders put the visitors ahead 43-41 with 4:55 to play.
But a basket by James tied the score and Belmont-bound Grayson Murphy went the length of the floor for a layup to put Independence ahead 45-43 with 4:20 lead. The Eagles never trailed again, hitting nine straight free throws to the roaring approval of their rocking crowd with visions of Murphy Center dancing in their heads.
Murphy knocked down 9 of 12 free throws to lead Independence with 21 points while Miller finished with 14 and wing Jeremiah Barr added 11 as the Eagles improved to 23-10.
Meanwhile, sectional frustration continued for the Golden Bears, who are now 0-for-7 in the round of 16 since 1993, finishing this season at 23-11.
Despite the defensive attention, Sanders scored 16 points, 13 of which came in the first half, to lead Mt. Juliet. Wilson and Pruitt each put in 10 while Stephens scored six, Hayes three and Tony Thompson and Brian Aiken a free throw apiece.