Sanders was smoking with 29 points, including six three-pointers to shoot down host Lebanon 65-45 in the Region 5-AAA semifinals in front of a packed Campbell Brandon Gym/Hester Gibbs Court house and a Midstate television audience.
“Sitting out that game (in the District 9-AAA tournament with a sprained ankle), I think it really bothered him,” Mt. Juliet coach Troy Allen said of Sanders. “He’s been uber-focused the last two games. He’s just a great player. He’s a three-year starter. He’s really grown up this year and taken control of our team. He’s a competitor. He’s a winner. He’s the player of the year in our league for a reason.”
“We started out playing a lot of our base stuff,” McDowell said of the Blue Devils’ defensive strategies. “They were quicker to the balls all night long, long rebounds, 50-50 balls. They did a good job executing in their offense, patient. J.R. Sanders is a great player. He’s a high-character kid, a high-motor kid and he’s played well all year long. He battled to come back from an ankle injury in the district tournament. He willed them to win the other night against Springfield and he kept that ball rolling again tonight.
“We didn’t leave anything in our back pocket. We threw everything we could and they had an answer all night long.”
Sanders hit back-to-back three-pointers after the Blue Devils had battled from a 7-2 deficit to an 8-7 lead. Sanders’ triples, followed by a Terrell Wilson three, were part of a 13-2 run which put Mt. Juliet in control as the Golden Bears, who lost both regular-season meetings to Lebanon, advanced to their third straight region final, and accompanying sectional, with a 23-9 record.
“We felt like we let one get away in the second game,” Allen said. “We had a lead and we turned it over a couple of times. I thought we were pretty evenly matched with them coming in. It was sort of who’s going to make some shots early and get a lead, and we did.”
“They did a good job of coming out and hitting us in the mouth early and establishing the lead and dictating tempo,” McDowell said. “The first two times we played them, we were able to match them as far as their intensity and their toughness. Tonight, they were definitely the tougher team.”
Mt. Juliet will face Northeast, which improved to 23-9 with a 58-50 win over Beech earlier Tuesday, at 7 p.m. Thursday. The winner will host a sectional at 7 p.m. Monday while the loser goes on the road.
Lebanon could never make enough defensive stops or enough unanswered scores to build a run to get back in the game. Mt. Juliet also controlled the tempo with long offensive possessions.
“We wanted to play fast and get the lead,” Allen said. “And then we wanted to make them come out and halfcourt-trap us or play man. We’re real good against that. We’re real comfortable when teams try to stretch and getting in seams. Offensively, that’s what we did. Defensively, we just did what we do. We had all these ideas, but we held them to 39 points the last game and felt it would be stupid if we changed anything.”
Trey Pruitt put in nine points for Mt. Juliet while Wilson sank two early threes on his way to seven. Hayes had five, Isaac Stephens four free throws and Jordan Lockridge, Ryan McIntosh, Tony Thompson and Brian Aiken two each.
Eddie Jackson led Lebanon with 17 points from the post, including a one-handed flush and one during the third quarter which could have ignited a Blue Devil spurt, only to see a Sanders steal and score snuff any momentum shift. Noah Mulaski scored all 14 of his points in the second half. Jeremiah Hastings had six, senior Cameron Oliver a three before fouling out early in the fourth quarter, senior JaKeese Turner and Zion Logue two each and Kameron Davis a free throw.
Lebanon saw a nine-game winning streak, and a run of 14 victories out of 15 contests, end as the Blue Devils wrapped up a 23-8 campaign.
“I hate it for our kids, our seniors,” McDowell said. “It was a great atmosphere in here. Definitely tip my cap to Coach Allen and Mt. Juliet. They outplayed us, they outcoached us and that’s all you can do. We didn’t have an answer for anything they did all night long and it seemed every move they made was the right one.”
Mt. Juliet will try again for that elusive first region championship and, with a win Monday, state tournament.
“Three years in a row, we’re mature,” Allen said of his team’s experience. “We’ve got some work to do. (Northeast) can obviously shoot it as good as anyone we’ve played. They stretch out four shooters. They’re real athletic.
“We’ll do what we do. I have a lot of confidence in this team.”
Girls final will remain at LHS
Clarksville and Rossview will play for the girls’ championship at 7 p.m. today at Brandon Gym. There had been speculation from the Clarksville media the game might be moved to Montgomery County. But TSSAA rules stipulate a venue change only when the visiting district wins all four quarterfinal games, or there is a written request by the schools involved and the scheduled host school. But according to media reports, the schools decided there wasn’t enough time to handle all the logistical moves necessary for a switch, leaving the game at LHS.
Watertown guard Austin Lasater was listed as a senior in Tuesday’s Democrat. He is actually a junior. The newspaper apologizes and is happy to set the record straight.