BY JESSE SMITHEY
MURFREESBORO — There are dream starts to state title games. And then there is what Fulton did to Haywood.
The Falcons, seeking their first state title since 2016, blistered the nets inside the Murphy Center at MTSU en route to a 26-point halftime lead.
Haywood was no ordinary opponent. It had won 30 games. It had a Mr. Basketball finalist.
Fulton looked like it played against air in the first 16 minutes.
And the Falcons (32-5) rode that tidal wave of momentum to the program’s fourth overall state championship, knocking off the Tomcats 82-52 on Saturday afternoon.
Fulton’s championship gold ball will now rest in a trophy case with ones from 2008, 2009 and 2016.
Tyler Lee was named 3A Tournament MVP. He went for 17 points and seven rebounds against Haywood (30-6). Taj Kimber finished with a team-high 26 points on 12-for-13 shooting. His twin brother, Denaj, had 14 points with five rebounds and six assists.
All three are juniors and made the all-tournament team, along with senior guard Marcellus Jackson.
Fulton won its semifinal Thursday by 40 and the final by 30.
“You hope that you can have an offensive start like that … but you can’t count on it,” said Fulton coach Jody Wright, who has been the coach for all of Fulton’s state boys basketball championships.
“At the 4-minute, 51-second mark of the second quarter, media timeout, I challenged these guys. (Haywood) had 16 points. I said, ‘Let’s hold them to 20 (by half).’ That was the goal. I didn’t know if we could keep making shots at that pace. But I knew we could keep defending and rebounding at that pace.”
Fulton could do all of that.
Spark plug and senior guard Jackson (12 points) set the tone early, going for 10 points in the first quarter and making all four of his field-goal attempts. But Fulton turned that 20-12 lead after one into an all-out rout by the break.
Fulton led 45-19 at halftime.
Fulton shot 72 percent in the first half.
Fulton shot 70 percent from the 3-point line in the first half.
Fulton out-rebounded Haywood, had fewer turnovers than Haywood (10-3) and only had 3 fouls to the Tomcats’ six. Fulton was 2 of 2 at the foul line.
Tyler Lee showed every ability in his bag and reached the half with 11 points on 4-for-4 shooting, displayed deft touch from the arc and playing above the rim with a baseline slash dunk.
“I was locked in from when I woke up to the beginning of the game,” said Lee. “The whole time.”
Twin brothers Taj and Denaj Kimber combined for 21 in the first half on 9-for-13 shooting. They popped in mid-range jumpers, 3s and even a transition dunk. Denaj Kimber handed off the easy fast-break layup opportunity to his brother, and Taj slammed it home for a 42-16 lead with 1:25 left in the second quarter.
Just an absolute clinic in only 16 minutes of play.
Sustaining that pace would be an unimaginable task. And it was, for a short spell. Fulton only scored four points in the first 4 minutes of the second half, as Haywood ramped up its press and defensive efforts to try and cut into Fulton’s lead.
The Tomcats couldn’t completely do that, however, in the third quarter.
Fulton was not fazed by Haywood’s enhanced effort and led 57-28 with 1:45 left in the third when Dexter Lewis raced in for an uncontested transition layup.
Taj Kimber’s mid-range jumper with 1:14 left in the third made for a 31-point lead.
And he hit a 3 at the buzzer for a 64-28 advantage with one quarter left. Fulton was 8 of 13 from 3 at that juncture and still shooting 65.9 percent.
Fulton finished the game at 64.8 percent.
WHITTLE SPRINGS DAYS
The Falcons’ boys basketball program was hopeful this title would transpire when, three years ago, the Kimber twins and Lee — the catalysts of a super successful Whittle Springs Middle School basketball program— enrolled at Fulton High School.
But the trio took its lumps in Year One of high school basketball, falling to eventual state champion Greeneville, 92-67, in the 2021 state sectionals.
Last season, Fulton matured and reached the Class 3A state semifinals, only to see its championship dreams dashed by a 51-50 count.
The Kimbers and Lee made good on their opportunity Saturday.
They played like title-game veterans — not newcomers.
“I thought those guys played just fantastic today. All of our guys did. I know these guys, the pressure, the external stuff (they face), I’m not dumb. I know what they’ve gone through,” said Wright. “But to see them at the brightest stage, when the lights are the brightest, to play on both ends. That’s the biggest thing. When these guys came in as freshmen, they had some skill sets. But I don’t know they could have guarded parked cars.
“Now, they are very good defenders. And that was just a constant theme through the postseason. You can’t hide weak defenders this time of year.”
Haywood was seeking its second overall title and first since 2015. For it to possibly win, it needed star guard Tylon Chatman, a Mr. Basketball finalist, going from the start. The high-flying guard had 10 points at the half on 3-for-10 shooting.
Janerus Snipe, the big-bodied, 6-7 Haywood post, never got going. He finished with eight points.
Chatman wound up with a game-high 32. But his second-half points did little to silence Fulton’s run. He made 12 of 28 shots from the floor.
“I had to be tight on ball,” Jackson said about defending Chatman. “I couldn’t give him anything.
“As a team, we wanted to be one-and-done (on defense). We wanted them to only get one shot. … just making it hard for him. Denying him off the ball. When he took his shots, give it a contest. If he makes it, he makes it. Next possession, hunker down and lock in. That boy is a tough player.”
PRESS ROOM INTERVIEWS. View HERE.
GAME HIGHLIGHTS. View HERE.
5STAR PHOTOS: Fulton Falcons vs. Haywood Tomcats – 2023 Class 3A State Championship