BY JESSE SMITHEY
MURFREESBORO — Fulton senior guard Marcellus Jackson walked to midcourt with 2 minutes, 44 seconds, left in the third quarter Thursday night against MLK and told his teammates not to let up.
As someone who doesn’t comprehend half effort, the diminutive and gritty Jackson didn’t want the Falcons to relinquish the large lead they enjoyed.
They were up 21 points at the time. And another trip to a state championship game was all but imminent.
But Jackson wasn’t taking it for granted.
“Because last year, we let it slip,” Jackson said, recalling Fulton’s semifinal one-point loss to South Side. “We were up. We had a chance.
“We always remember 51-50. That was our last game last year. I came out and told them that we can’t let up right here. We got to close it.”
The Falcons never relented and easily ousted MLK by a 72-32 count in the Class 3A state semifinal at MTSU’s Murphy Center.
Fulton (31-5) held its opponent scoreless in the third quarter until the 1:17 mark, increasing its 27-22 halftime lead to a 51-27 advantage with eight minutes to play.
The Class 3A championship is set for an 11 a.m. Central time tip on Saturday against Haywood (30-5), which defeated Ridgeway in the game after Fulton’s on Thursday.
The state finals appearance will be the 10th in Fulton program history and ninth under hall-of-fame head coach Jody Wright.
Fulton is 3-6 all-time in state finals, its last win coming in 2016. The Falcons were runners-up in 2018 and 2019.
“To be honest with you, I haven’t even looked at either team (Ridgeway or Haywood),” said Wright, whose Falcons will have Friday off to prepare. “I don’t look ahead. I just never have. … I’ve played them both down here before.
“I know we’re going to have a battle on our hands, either way. At this point, you’re happy to advance. But that’ll be a (scouting) job we start attacking tonight.”
For Denaj Kimber, the junior lefty guard from Fulton, the semifinal win Thursday night helped ease the pangs of a crushing 2022 state semifinal loss — one in which he hit a 3 with 5 seconds left to cut the Fulton deficit to 51-50 against South Side but also missed a potential game-winning 3 at the buzzer from the left wing.
Kimber posted a commendable performance against MLK. He had a game-high 24 points, went 11 of 11 at the free-throw line, grabbed five rebounds and three steals.
“Today’s game, I felt like that one shot that I took (against South Side last year), I took it into this game. That last shot we had, we could have took it into the finals,” said Kimber. “But today, we executed. We won by 40.
“I had a great feeling today. Even though we lost last year on my shot, I had a great feeling today.”
MLK senior Simeon Williams, a 6-5 guard, aided in Fulton’s cause by picking up his third foul late in the first quarter. He got whistled for his fourth in the opening minutes of the third, despite sideline instructions before the third-quarter start from MLK coach Caden Anderson on how to guard in the second half to avoid foul trouble.
Williams fouled out with 2:33 remaining in the third.
He had two points on 1-for-4 shooting.
He entered the week averaging 16.6 points and he had 24 points and 16 rebounds in a quarterfinal win Tuesday.
MLK’s final foul tally was 25.
Fulton led by 32 points with 5 minutes to play. Fulton was 24 of 28 at the foul line by that juncture and finished 28 of 32 for an 87.5 percent clip.
Jackson buried a corner 3 with 4:20 remaining for a 66-29 advantage.
He never let up. … until Wright subbed him out with 3:28 left on the clock. Jackson finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and three steals.
“It’s a just blessing to play for Jody Wright, for real,” said Jackson. “That’s all he instills in our heads: defense, take charges, rebounding. That’s the key to winning.
“I wanted to be the key guy and I want to always be the key guy — that man; I’m going to step in and take and be the sacrifice to win every game we step out.”
PRESS ROOM VIDEO INTERVIEWS … view HERE.
GAME HIGHLIGHTS … view HERE.
5STAR PHOTOS: Fulton Falcons vs. MLK – 2023 Class 3A State Quarterfinals – Thursday, March 16