STORY AND PHOTO BY JAKE DONOVAN
Nolensville knew all too well from past experience that—no matter the circumstance—East Nashville’s program will always find a way to win.
It’s one thing to be aware of it, another to learn from that lesson. The Lady Knights played like a team with revenge on its mind, upsetting the previously undefeated Lady Eagles in a 54-49 thriller in the Middle Tennessee Invitational Tournament championship at Franklin High School.
An explosive 23-point 4th quarter lifted the Lady Eagles to victory, which was sealed thanks to a steal by Parker Leftwich (13 points, 8 assists, 5 steals), who was named tournament MVP.
“I felt like we really just wanted it a little more this time,” Nolensville head coach Chris Ladd stated after the win. “Every time our two teams play, it’s always the same style of basketball.”
Nolensville already knew what to expect from a resilient East Nashville team that entered the tournament undefeated and ranked #2 in the state. The Lady Eagles overcame a 10-point deficit to trump Rossview on Friday, this coming after having to rally to beat Nolensville just eight days ago.
On both occasions, it was an inspiring 4th quarter run which propelled East Nashville to victory. Nolensville was well prepared on Saturday, jumping out to a 14-5 lead on the strength of junior sharpshooter Grace Baird (12 points) and sophomore center Zoe Piller (13 points, 16 rebounds)—both of whom joined Leftwich on the All-Tournament team.
A gleaming example of the Lady Eagles’ fight came in the form of Tameia Shaw, who was laid out on the court for several minutes late in the 1st quarter after battling Sidney Mickulin for a loose ball. The fiery point guard came back strong midway through the 2nd quarter, draining a pair of three-pointers in rallying East Nashville who trailed by seven at halftime.
In a slight change of pace, East Nashville’s trademark late surge came a little earlier than expected, going on a 14-point tear in the 3rd quarter to enjoy its first lead of the night. A three-pointer from Caymin Ladd (9 points) helped stall the run and more importantly pull Nolensville within three heading into the final eight minutes.
The trick was rallying the troops to believe that victory was within reach.
“I told them that I’m not ready to lose again – so let’s not lose again,” Leftwich said of her between-quarters speech to her teammates, which clearly resonated.
Piller converted on a basket down low to begin the 4th quarter. Nolensville got the ball right back thanks to a steal by Leftwich, who connected with Baird on a long outlet pass. Baird’s shot didn’t fall, but Piller was in perfect position to scoop up the offensive rebound and convert on a 3-point play.
“I admit that I was nervous when (East Nashville) rallied, just watching it happen again,” confessed Piller , who averaged 12.3 ppg and 11.7 rpg during the tournament. “But when Parker hyped us up, we were able to get our minds right and were able to push through.”
There was still plenty of fight in the Lady Eagles, though. A’niya Young—who along with London Fairs (8 points) and Quenterra Mitchell (4 points) were named to the All-Tournament team—nailed a jumper to stall Nolensville’s 8-0 run, scoring 6 of her team high 10 points in the 4th quarter.
A three-pointer by Jalynn Knox (8 points) from 27’ out was followed by a Young jumper which pulled the Lady Eagles within two, but never managed to get any closer.
Their best chance at tying the game came after Knox managed to steal an inbound immediately converting on both ends of a one-and-one. An attempted pass to Shaw, however, was thwarted by Leftwich who raced down court to record her 3rd steal of the quarter and 5th overall with just 0:12 to go.
“I saw (Knox) in the corner and then (Shaw) under the basket,” Leftwich recalled of the game-saving play. I knew she was going to try to make that pass, so I just raced over there and swiped the ball.”
Leftwich managed to get it to Mickulin, who was fouled by Fairs and sank both her free throws to seal the win and tournament championship for Nolensville. The heroic efforts by the junior were reflected in her receiving tournament MVP honors.
“I’ve never been the MVP in a tournament before, so it’s a brand-new feeling for me – but I do feel like I’ve earned it,” stated Leftwich.
Nolensville will begin 2019 with the first of four straight home games, starting with a January 4 showdown versus Stewart Creek. In scoring a win over a previously unbeaten East Nashville team who bested them barely a week prior, the Lady Knights couldn’t ask for any greater momentum heading into the New Year.
“We keep growing in confidence and proved to ourselves that we can go where we want to go, which is Murfreesboro (state tournament) eventually,” stated Ladd. “Whether or not we can go far there remains to be seen, but (a win like) this makes us feel like we can at least get there.”