BY CORY WOODROOF
The Nolensville Knights are well-versed in what it takes to win against the Marshall Co. Tigers and their superstar/Lipscomb commit K.J. Johnson.
Really, you need to be about one play away from the game-changing talent to be able to top him.
Well, senior Zach Campbell made that play for the Knights with a clutch three with about a minute to go in overtime to give Nolensville a late lead.
The shot willed a few timely free throws from Nate Bloedorn and Campbell, and right as the final buzzer aired through Forrest High School’s gym, the Knights went from heavy breathing to loud celebration.
They won 71-66 and earned their first 12-AA district title as a school.
“I’ve got to hit it,” Campbell (19 points, three from the perimeter) said of his clutch shot. “We practice on hitting shots…I just came in the game and just didn’t think about it. The shot went in.”
Knights head coach Wes Lambert commended Campbell for the role he plays on the team.
“When big games are going on, he steps up,” Lambert said. “He’s a special player. His speed is unlike anybody around here, and when he cranks it into that high gear, it’s hard to step in front of him. You don’t foul him; you have to foul him.
“He’s able to get to the free throw line, knock down some big free throws for us. He changes our team.”
Nolensville avenged an early district tournament exit from last season.
“Last year, we lost the first game, so this means a lot, especially winning a game like that adds to it all,” Bloedorn said of winning the district tournament title.
The Knights did their best to maintain momentum throughout the night, with Johnson catching fire in the second quarter in what would be a 46-point performance.
Nolensville benefitted from Campbell, Bloedorn (24) and Jayden Watkins (11, three treys) pacing the offense, and Campbell and Watkins’ watchful eye of Johnson, who could’ve easily burst past 50 and kept going.
“He’s probably the best player I’ve ever guarded,” Campbell said. “He’s a tough player. We just had to game plan [around] him.”
Nolensville and Marshall Co. have gone into two heart-pounders over the stretch of the 12-AA district tournament, with the Lady Knights getting a thrilling overtime win of their own Monday against the Tigerettes.
A rivalry is brewing between Knights and Tigers, and that’s not lost on the victors.
“Big time,” Campbell said. “We don’t like Marshall County, but we love playing them…it was a good rivalry game today. We had to finish it, and that’s what we did.”
Lambert was quick to recognize what an important moment this is for the school.
“It’s incredible,” Lambert said of winning the district title. “It feels good to be able to close out a win in overtime, district championship. I’m proud of our guys.”
He was also quick to compliment the Mr. Basketball finalist and his team.
“Hats off to Marshall County,” he said. “They play so hard. K.J. Johnson is an incredible player. We’re throwing two guys at him, and bringing a third over on him, and he’s still scoring. He’s a special player, and that makes their team run.”
Earlier in the month, Nolensville saw a lead slip past when Johnson and the Tigers came visiting, and it seems that the Knights learned from a few of the mistakes made that night.
“We always tell our guys, ‘Don’t try to match K.J..'” Lambert said. “You’re not going to be able to. Do what we do best, and try to value every possession, and we noticed that tonight.”
From here, the Knights will look to Saturday, where they’ll look to take on the region for a second-straight title.
For now, though, they’ll reflect on the history accomplished and the history perhaps to come.
“It means a lot to us,” Campbell said of bringing back Nolensville’s first boys basketball district title. “We work hard for it. Hard work pays off, in my opinion. All we do now is celebrate the moment, and get ready for Saturday, because we’re not done yet.”
The Knights host Creek Wood at week’s end to start region play.
“All year long, we’ve been trying to prepare for March,” Lambert said. “Last year, we were four minutes away from opening the state tournament. [That’s] a big motivation for us. We know we’ve got some tough competition ahead of us, but winning games like this do make the road…not less difficult, but more manageable…than [if we were] losing these types of games.
“When we’ve had to play games of big importance, we’ve stepped up. That’s been the biggest thing.”
Bloedorn was named the All-Tournament MVP, with Campbell and Watkins on the All-Tourney team.
Bloedorn, Campbell and Reese Gilbert were the Knights on the All-District team, and Lambert was named 12-AA’s Coach of the Year.
Johnson was the district’s MVP.