BY JESSE SMITHEY
MURFREESBORO — As the Grainger girls’ basketball program began its ascent to being one of the state’s premier basketball programs in the early 2010s, Tori Rutherford watched every step of the evolution.
Now a senior guard for the Lady Grizzlies, Rutherford recounted Friday how she and fellow seniors Lauren Longmire and Matty Tanner looked up to the girls who played before them and made all the postseason trips to support their predecessors.
“Every year, we went to substate, every year they came down here, me, Lauren and Matty, our parents would pack us up and we were going. They said, ‘One day, it’s going to be your day down here,'” said Rutherford.
“‘We want you to learn how it is.'”
Parents always know best.
Grainger out-hustled and out-worked favored Westview in the Class AA state semifinals, 45-33, Friday at MTSU’s Murphy Center to earn the program’s first-ever berth into a state championship game.
Westview, which made its ninth consecutive state appearance this week, entered the tournament with just one loss and a Miss Basketball finalist in Jada Harrison. They were the program that eliminated Grainger in the state tournament last year.
But while Harrison and the Lady Chargers cut Grainger’s lead to seven with 4 minutes, 46 seconds to play in the fourth quarter, Rutherford hit a 3.
And then Tanner hit a 3.
The lead went back up to double digits and stayed there — those trips to Murfreesboro from long ago and the experience earned on the floor of the Murphy Center the last three seasons had paid off.
Rutherford finished with 10 points, Tanner nine and Longmire 14.
The Lady Grizzlies (35-3) will face Macon County (26-6) at 2 p.m. Central time on Saturday in the championship game. Macon County topped Northview in the other semifinal Friday.
“I think growing up, watching some of those players (before us): Allison Hodge — she was a Miss Basketball finalist — Blake Lamb, Celeste Stratton, Tailor Morgan, we’ve had some great players to look up to in Grainger history,” said Rutherford.
“I’m just glad we got to be a part of that — and, now, we’re a part of the state legacy.”
Grainger led 22-17 at the half but spent the first 3:30 of the first quarter sizing up its opponent. Westview (27-2) had more height, length and an SEC prospect in Harrison.
But the tenacity of Longmire helped the Lady Grizzlies overcome an early 5-0 deficit, especially when 6-2 Westview post Angelina Barr picked up a second foul.
Longmire went into full attack mode and scored 10 points in the first half, making a 3-pointer to tied Westview at 10-all in the second quarter and draining another with 33 seconds left to increase the lead to 22-15.
Grainger beat the favored Westview on the boards, 16-5, through two quarters and went 4-for-7 at the 3-point line and 4 of 4 at the foul line.
But the second half didn’t start as well. And Bishop called a timeout with 4:31 left in the third to settle his girls, who hadn’t scored in the third and had let Westview cut the score to 22-21.
It wound up being the wise call by Bishop, as the Lady Grizz went on an 11-2 run the rest of the period.
Rutherford banked in a shot over Barr at the buzzer for a 33-23 advantage.
“We weren’t very good offensively at the start of the game or at the start of the third quarter,” said Bishop. “I don’t think we took a shot the first three minutes of the third quarter.
“So, just trying to calm us down. … ‘We’re OK. Let’s try to win this quarter.'”
And they did. And then won the game.
Tanner got a transition opportunity and turned it into 3-point play to start the fourth. Tanner unleashed a big celebration infant of a large Grainger crowd when her layup fell through and heard the foul whistle.
“I missed a few shots in the first half,” said Tanner, “so when I got (the steal), I was like, ‘I got to get this. I got to get this.’
“And when I did, I was like, ‘Yes. Finally.'”
And when Rutherford and Tanner responded with 3s to increase the margin to 42-29 with 3:45 to go, the Grainger crowd sensed the impending title-game appearance.
Grainger out-rebounded Westview, 22-13, and made seven of 11 from 3. It went 10-for-16 from 3 in the quarterfinal round.
That’s 63 percent from 3 through two games.
“They’re big, but they don’t like to bang,” Bishop said about Westview’s size. “(Barr), I was a little worried about her athleticism and rebounding against her. But I knew that, as big as they were, they’re a perimeter-oriented team. And (Harrison) is as good as anybody we’ve played. She’s a Miss Basketball finalist for a reason.
“But I got one pretty good one (Rutherford) sitting next to me, too, who got short-changed on some of that stuff. But, anyway, Tori gets to play tomorrow and the other girl doesn’t.”