STORY BY JAKE DONOVAN | PHOTO BY WHITNEY JARRELD
Nolensville already knew to expect tough competition, no matter whom they faced in the 2018 Middle Tennessee Invitational Tournament.
That included the hosting Franklin Lady Rebels, whom the Lady Knights doubled up in their meeting earlier this season but were forced to work much harder in Friday’s win at Franklin High School.
The visiting Lady Knights led the entire way in a 42-31 victory, but it wasn’t until a 4th quarter surge led by Parker Leftwich (8 points, 4 steals) when they were able to finally exhale
“We beat them fairly easily last time but they were really ready today,” Nolensville head coach Chris Ladd said of a much-improved Franklin squad than the one his team faced earlier this season. “Their box-and-1 bothered us but we found a way to grind it out.
“We missed a lot of easy shots, but we found a way to get it done.”
The offense was hot in a high-flying opening quarter that saw Nolensville sprint out to a 20-10 lead. The Lady Knights saw point production from five different players in the first eight minutes of action, with Sidney Mickulin opening the game with a three pointer and Julia Nighan ending the quarter with a four-point play.
On the other side of the court, Franklin struggled in early efforts to adjust to its new lineup. Senior point guard Jillian King is a medical scratch from the tournament, her contributions limited to encouraging her teammates.
“The only thing I can do for now is talk,” King—a Valdosta State commit—told Home Page. “So during timeouts and halftime I’m just trying to throw in anything I see that can help my teammates.”
Her newfound role included offering real-time words of advice to Bergen Allee, who has played point guard in her absence. It hasn’t been a smooth transition for the always-hustling freshman, but the team as a whole has stepped up—not just in King’s absence, but also making great strides since a 49-24 loss to Nolensville in early December.
“It was definitely an improvement from the last time we played them,” noted senior post player Darcy Doran (6 points), who found herself playing point guard late in the game. “It says a lot how far we’ve grown but it also showed just how much work there is to do.
“We had too many turnovers tonight and as a team we only had five offensive boards. That really hurt us. So we just have to take a step back and tomorrow just really focus on fundamentals.”
Getting back to basics is what led to Nolensville to a much cleaner win on Friday following an unexpectedly bruising battle in a victory over Father Ryan one day prior. The offense went AWOL for much of the 2nd and 3rd quarters, but still managed to maintain the lead throughout thanks to tight half-court defense.
“Our defense has really kept us in it these last two games,” noted Ladd. “Some nights, our offense just isn’t going to be there, but when we play defense like this, we’re always going to keep us hanging in there.”
It was enough to survive a strong 3rd quarter from the Lady Rebels, who trimmed Nolensville’s lead to four thanks to timely baskets from Doran, Ryan and sophomore center Kate O’Neil (7 points, 10 rebounds). The Lady Knights’ response came in the form of the low-post presence of sophomore Zoe Piller (10 points, 11 rebounds), who held O’Neil scoreless for the first half.
Whatever momentum was gained by Franklin quickly dissolved in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter. Leftwich got hot, dropping six of her eight points in the quarter, including back-to-back steals resulting in fast break layups.
“It just happens for me. It happened quite a bit last season and it’s happening again this year,” noted Leftwich, whose tireless play on both ends of the court was too much for an exhausted Lady Rebels squad to contain late. “I just get it in my head, it’s like a permanent reminder that my team needs that burst of energy from me when the game is on the line.”
The surge helped grow Nolensville’s lead back to double digits and ultimately sail into Saturday’s tournament finals. The Lady Knights will face East Nashville, who overcame a 10-point deficit in the 4th quarter to surge past Rossview to advance to the championships.
“They’re a strong 4th quarter team,” Ladd said of the Lady Eagles, who beat his squad 68-60 barely a week ago. “We had them down most of the game, they were down by 10 in this game tonight. But they just always expect to win.”
Franklin will have the same expectation heading into Saturday’s 3rd Place game versus Rossview.
“They’re a really strong team, they can battle,” notes Ryan. “But this is why we’re in this tournament, to play all this good competition and become better.”
Photo from previous game.