STORY BY JAKE DONOVAN | PHOTO BY DEB SCALLY
Despite the incredible season his team has already enjoyed, Franklin head coach Darrin Joines continues to insist that the Rebels have yet to play their best game of the year.
It will have to come out—and stick around—by next week, considering the field that awaits them in the state tournament.
Franklin (28-6) returns to the Class AAA state tournament at Murfreesboro’s Middle Tennessee State University for the first time in 30 years—which happens to be the year of their lone championship. Awaiting the red-hot Rebels will be Knoxville’s Bearden Bulldogs (29-5), as Tuesday’s blind draw on MTSU campus revealed their matchup, which takes place Wednesday, March 13 at 6:00 p.m. at MTSU’s Murphy Center.
The Rebels stormed into the state tournament after running a clean sweep in claiming the District 11-AAA regular season, district tournament and Region 6-AAA tournament championships, with senior guard Reese Glover nabbing MVP honors at all three levels.
Monday’s Class AAA sub-state home win over Gallatin pushed Franklin one game further than last season’s run, when they came up just short at that very same level. Their dream run to Murfreesboro comes on the heels of an 18-1 stretch since the start of 2019, their lone loss coming versus district rival Dickson County on a night where they’d already clinched the District 11-AAA title.
Eight straight wins have followed, with only one—a district tournament championship win over longtime rival Brentwood—coming within single digits, and that in a 74-65 win. Franklin blew out the Bruins on their home court in the Region 6-AAA finals, riding an epic 4th quarter blitz all the way to a 91-65 statement making victory.
Just don’t expect their next opponent to be the least bit impressed.
Bearden (29-5) remains in search of its first-ever state championship, with this year as good a chance as any of realizing that dream. The Bulldogs come in riding a 17-game winning streak, including a 46-40 over Dobyns-Bennett in Monday’s Class AAA sectionals.
The reigning District 4-AAA and Region 2-AAA champions return to the Glass House for the third straight year, returning six seniors—including nationally-touted guard Jacques “Ques” Glover—who played an integral role in advancing the Bulldogs to the 2018 state semifinals. They were ultimately shown the exit by powerhouse Memphis East Mustangs, the eventual state tournament champ who face Cleveland in the final game of the quarterfinals round.
The good news for this side of the bracket is that a potential crack at defending three-time champion Mustangs won’t come until the championship round on March 16. Of course, Franklin and Bearden still have to get past one another, as well as the winner between Sevier County and Whitehaven.
Franklin’s 30-year drought at the state level is the longest of any team in the field. Right behind them is Sevier County (25-6), the only Class AAA contender to have never won a game at this level.
The Smoky Bears have only appeared twice before—1991 and 1929—both resulting in winless ventures. Still, Sevier County returns to the big dance following a hot postseason run. A current eight-game win streak includes District 2-AAA and Region 1-AAA championships, with the District crown coming in a 57-54 win over Morristown East, the only team to beat them in 2019—twice, in fact.
A tough ask comes of their search for a first state win, as they face a hungry Memphis-based squad in search of a second straight trip to the finals.
Whitehaven (24-7) has long been forced to play the bridesmaid role versus local rival Memphis East. The Tigers were upended by the Memphis powerhouse in last year’s championship and managed to go just 1-3 versus the Mustangs this season.
Their one win, however, was a huge one as they pulled off the minor upset in claiming the District 16-AAA championship. Memphis East avenged the loss in the Region 8-AAA finals, but the Tigers advanced with 65-49 road win over Bartlett in Monday’s sub-state matchup.
Now comes the next step towards a potential repeat to the finals, beginning with their showdown versus Sevier County. Their pairing marks the first game of the Class AAA quarterfinals, which takes place March 13th at 4:30 p.m. at MTSU’s Murphy Center.
Franklin has not faced anyone in this four-team batch, but boast a 6-2 record this season versus all teams who’ve advanced to the state tournament. Five of the six come in the opposite side of the Class AAA bracket, going 4-0 versus Brentwood and also defeating Oakland last December.
Fittingly, those two teams face each other in a March 14th quarterfinals game.
The Rebels also split two games with powerhouse East Nashville and lost to Pearl-Cohn, both of whom advanced to the Class AA state tournament.
Those tough games early in the season helped prepare Franklin to reach—and be ready for—this point. Next must come the team’s best performance of the year they’ve been waiting for, made over twice more bring home the crown.