BY JESSE SMITHEY
MURFREESBORO — Tried as they might, Sevier County’s girls basketball program had no real way to simulate in practice the opponent it wound up facing Tuesday in a Class 4A state quarterfinal.
Sure, the turnaround from Saturday’s state sectional win to Tuesday’s first-round game was quick.
But, also, finding that much speed, wing span and height to practice against at the last minute wasn’t really in the cards — especially since the Bearettes left for Murfreesboro on Monday and the school’s boys basketball team was in a sectional game Monday at Karns.
So the Bearettes did what they could inside the Murphy Center at Middle Tennessee State, but Bartlett spoiled Sevier County’s first trip to state since 2003 with a 57-37 win.
The Lady Panthers (33-7) featured 6-foot-5 senior and Miss Basketball finalist Mallory Collier, 6-2 freshman forward Faye Williams and 6-1 sophomore Zoey Rixter in the front court. And Bartlett’s backcourt was deep and full of guards with speed and an aggressive defensive mentality.
By game’s end, Sevier County (26-8) had shot 28.6 percent from the floor, committed 17 turnovers and managed just eight free-throw attempts. Bartlett has won its last 12 games and all by double digits.
“We really just had a day and a half to prepare. We couldn’t really simulate it in practice,” said Sevier County coach Jonathan Shultz. “We just knew that we had to focus on trying to box out and hold them to one shot. We felt like if we did that and played well offensively, we’d have a decent chance to compete with them.
“But they are, by far, the biggest team we’ve seen all year. We’ve played some really good teams. But they had more length than any other team. You can’t really simulate it if you don’t have it yourself and you haven’t played it. It was an adjustment. I felt like at the end of the game we made an adjustment, but it was a little too late.”
Bartlett led 22-10 at the half, despite its 26.9-percent shooting. How? The Lady Panthers had 11 offensive rebounds, seven steals, six second-chance points and forced 11 Sevier County turnovers.
The Bearettes never looked comfortable against the speed of Bartlett nor their opponent’s far-reaching wing spans.
Sevier County shot 25 percent in the first half and was 0-for-4 from the 3-point line. Moreover, it didn’t attack the post much and wound up with just two free-throw attempts through 16 minutes.
Sevier Country trailed 19-10 with 59 seconds left in the half. Once Bartlett pushed it to 12 by the break, the advantage remained in double figures the rest of the way.
Bartlett shot 52 percent in the second half to race into Friday’s state semifinal.
Meanwhile, underclassmen at Sevier County all seemed to hug a senior or console one as they walked off the Murphy Center floor Tuesday, maybe deep down appreciating the efforts they put forth to get the program back to this stage since the Bearettes’ last trip in 2003.
Natali Shultz, Emma Fowler, Tia Faulconer and Hailey Williams will be the departing seniors.
Shultz, the coach’s daughter, hit three 3s in the fourth. Fowler had six points and three assists in 23 minutes Tuesday. Falcouner even got a bucket in the final minutes to cap her career.
And Williams had eight points and eight rebounds in the final game of her successful run as a longtime starter for Sevier County.
“They’re a special group. I’ve had them since third grade. And, of course, one is one of my own,” said Coach Shultz. “I started with them then.
“Sevier County has a real rich tradition. We just went through a drought for two decades,” Shultz added. “Now, I think (the seniors) have established the ground work. We have a middle school team that just won the state that feeds us. So we’ve got a tradition set back to where it used to be. They’ll always have that to look back on. They helped turn it around.”