By Steve Williams
In hindsight, this year’s TSSAA Class AA state championship may have been settled the night before the title game was played.
Fulton, using only six players, labored 40 minutes for a 73-72 double-overtime win over Nashville Stratford in the semifinal nightcap, after Memphis Hamilton emptied its bench early and coasted to an 81-36 victory over Livingston Academy.
Falcons Edward Lacy and Deshaun Page had gone the distance in the semis and two other teammates toiled all but two minutes of the action.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, barely broke a sweat. Their best player, Martrell Brooks, played only 17 minutes. No Hamilton player was on the court longer than 22 minutes. All 13 Wildcats played.
Still, Fulton led by eight points with less than four minutes remaining in the finals at Murfreesboro’s Murphy Center on Saturday night, March 17, before Hamilton finished strong for a 60-58 win.
“I think fatigue set in,” recalled Fulton Coach Jody Wright last week. “We had the double-overtime game the night before where we had two guys never leave the floor and three other guys play 30-plus minutes. We went down there with a pretty short bench.
“I think the officials probably let it get a little rough there. It is what it is. I’m certainly not blaming anyone there.
“And I think too Hamilton just made some plays. They are a good basketball team. I don’t think people realized how good Hamilton was.
“So, I think it was a combination of factors. I would have loved to have pulled that one out, but it doesn’t diminish how proud I am of our guys and how they competed this week.”
Hamilton’s average margin of victory through the postseason was 25 points, Wright noted.
Fulton, however, led 52-44 with less than four minutes remaining before a 13-1 run by Hamilton turned its deficit into a 57-53 lead.
A 3-point shot by Lacy from deep behind the top of the circle pulled Fulton within one point (59-58) in the game’s final minute.
But on the ensuing Hamilton possession, a determined Brooks, battling inside, managed to put up shot after shot – five in all – before drawing a foul with 29.1 seconds on the clock.
“He was a strong guy and maybe the most explosive player we’ve seen all year,” said Wright. “We knew that coming in.
“I just don’t think the last two minutes of the game we were as tough and physical as we needed to be and that (play) goes back to a little fatigue.
“I think we were out of gas.”
Brooks made the first free throw and missed the second to give Hamilton its two-point lead.
Fulton still had time to even the score or go ahead, but Lacy couldn’t find a shot against the Wildcats’ defense. With time running down, he passed the ball to senior Josh Berry, who missed a 22-footer from the right side of the circle.
Brooks totaled 21 points and 14 rebounds to power Hamilton (36-2). James De Jesus added 12 points, while Jordan Johnson and Julian Woods chipped in 10 each.
Trey Davis, connecting on 9 of 13 field goal attempts, paced Fulton (25-9) with 23 points. The junior wing also had four assists but committed seven turnovers.
Page contributed 14 points, seven rebounds and three steals. Lacy added 10 points.
The Fulton coach mentioned two plays where he felt a referee’s call could have gone the other way and may have changed the final outcome.
“They made some tough 3s,” he said, “but if you get any of those calls right there, I think you’re able to stave it off. You’re able to stop that run a little bit.
“I’m not criticizing them. That’s just one of the things that goes along with the game.”
ALL-TOURNAMENT: Hamilton’s Martrell Brooks was selected MVP. Fulton honorees included Edward Lacy, Trey Davis and Deshaun Page.
Knox County’s Gold and Silver recipients
Here’s how high school boys basketball teams from Knox County have fared in TSSAA state basketball tournaments since the first tourney was held in 1921:
Austin-East (3): 1977 Class AAA, 1985 Class AA and 1987 Class AA.
Fulton (3): 2008, 2009 and 2016, all Class AA.
Knoxville High (3): 1939, 1941 and 1951, all pre-classification.
Grace Christian Academy (1): 2018 Division II-A.
Holston (1): 1978 Class AA.
Austin-East (5): 1982, 1986, 1999, 2000 and 2001, all Class AA.
Fulton (5): 1962 pre-classification, 1996 Class AA, 1998 Class AA, 2015 Class AA and 2018 Class AA.
Knoxville High (3): 1923, 1938 and 1950, all pre-classification.
Knoxville Catholic (3): 1974 Class Small, 1976 Class A and 2017 Class AA.
Bearden (1): 2011 Class AAA.
Holston (1): 1967 pre-classification.
Rule (1): 1978 Class AA.
South-Young (1): 1980 Class AA.
Webb School (1): 2018 Division II-A.
– STEVE WILLIAMS