By JESSE SMITHEY
MURFREESBORO — As the three walked the bowels of MTSU’s Murphy Center together towards the media room, Grainger seniors Tori Rutherford and Lauren Longmire dropped a quick dollop of both playful grief and congratulations on Rusty Bishop for winning his first state-tournament game as their head coach.
The moment was candid and genuine — and it peeled back the curtain for a brief second so to see the chemistry the Grainger girls’ basketball team shares from the helm down.
And that deep-rooted, long-built connection manifested itself on the court Wednesday night in a 64-37 thrashing of Nashville Maplewood.
After first-round, state tournament losses in 2016, 2019 and 2020, the Lady Grizzlies unleashed a pent-up fury of 3-pointers in the first half that all but sank any hopes Maplewood (11-2) had of advancing.
Grainger (34-3) went 8-for-12 from the perimeter through the first 16 minutes, and their 36-20 lead left little doubt that they belonged in this Class AA field yet again.
“It definitely means a lot. The first two years we were down here (in 2019 and 2020), it was just like we were happy to be down here,” said Rutherford. “Last year, we wanted to get that state tournament win. I just feel like getting that win, it can build some confidence.
“We were a little scared going in (tonight). But we knew, hey, we’re the more experienced team. So we were just really excited to get that first state tournament win under our belt.”
Rutherford finished with 11 points and seven assists. Longmire contributed 16 points and five boards. And junior guard Sydnie Hayes had a monster night with 16 points.
Hayes made the first two 3s for Grainger for a quick 8-2 lead at the 6-minute, 10-second mark of the first. Rutherford added another for an 11-2 advantage.
And then they really started pouring down in the second quarter. Longmire made two, the latter of which gave Grainger a 32-16 lead midway through the second quarter.
Hayes hit two more 3s in the second quarter, and her fourth-and-final 3 came with 2:58 left before the break for a 35-20 score.
Maplewood featured one of the state’s top shot blockers in 6-2 center Daryana Thompson, who came in averaging 5.5 blocks per game to go along with her double-double average of 10.5 points and 11.2 rebounds.
So while Grainger is known for its perimeter prowess, hitting 3s Wednesday helped the Lady Grizzlies not to have to attack the paint. Still, Thompson blocked six shots, scored seven points and got seven rebounds.
All told, Grainger went 10-for-16 from the 3-point line Wednesday.
“We were unbelievable shooting from the perimeter in the first half,” said Bishop. “If we shoot it that way, we’re really, really good. I feel like we had a little lapse on the boards in the second quarter. And we knew with their (Maplewood’s) size, that would hurt us at time.
“But I’m very proud of the way we shot it. Offensively, I thought we were great. And defensively, we were really good in spurts, as well.”
Maplewood put a little pressure on Grainger in the second half. It cut the lead to 42-34 on a 3-pointer by Renata Watson.
But Grainger’s Millie Hurst made a jumper and Alia Maloney a 3 for a 47-34 lead with one quarter to play.
Grainger then filibustered the basketball for the first 96 seconds of the fourth quarter to shorten the game while preserving its lead. It continued to work clock throughout the fourth.
And when Hayes scored on a layup at the 4:12 mark of the fourth, Grainger led by 21 and the game all but won.
“We didn’t panic,” said Bishop. “This group is very experienced. Senior leaders. Play all upperclassmen. And we knew we were going to get (Maplewood’s) best shot the first three or four minutes of the third quarter.
“We didn’t panic. … We withstood their best run and answered.”
Grainger will rematch with Westview (28-1) at 2:30 p.m. Central time Friday in the Class AA state semifinals.
Westview eliminated Grainger in the first round of the state tournament last year, 43-38.
“We got who we wanted,” said Bishop. “They ended our season last year. Westview is a very talented team and has a Miss Basketball finalist.
“So we know they’re very talented. Got to watch them before we played. But listen, I told my assistant that sometimes it just takes one (win) to get you on a roll down here and get your confidence going. So, we’ll see what happens Friday.”