MURFREESBORO — Maplewood High senior guard Fred Lee placed his hands over his face, unable to hide his utter disappointment .
Lee and his Panthers teammates had just seen their hopes for a state basketball championship fade into the darkness at MTSU’s Murphy Center, having fallen to Liberty Tech in a Class AA semifinal loss 45-37 Friday afternoon.
“I’ve dreamed about this (winning state) for so long,’’ said Lee who scored eight points before fouling out on a charging call with 1:32 left. “This hurts — it hurts so much.’’
The Panthers trailed nearly the entire game, falling down by as much as 12 (18-6) early and were still behind 30-20 early in the third quarter. But led by Lee and super center Robert Wade, Maplewood stormed back to tie it 37-37 on a steal and layup by Lee with 5:38 left. Lee hit the only Maplewood 3-pointer.
Then, Maplewood ran out of gas. Liberty closed the game on an 8-0 run, starting when Tarius Johnson broke free for a hoop, snapping the tie. A series of Maplewood rushed shots and turnovers, as well as three key offensive foul calls in the final moments ended their upset hopes as the Panthers didn’t score in the last 5½ minutes.
“When you play an elite program like Liberty, you have to minimize mistakes and turnovers and play a complete game,’’ said fourth-year Coach Ty Wilson, whose best team ended 25-8.
“A lot of things went Liberty’s way,’’ added Wilson, noting specifically, “There are going to be offensive charging calls made in a game of this magnitude.’’
Wade led all scorers with 23 points, to go with six rebounds and two blocked shots but, like Lee as a senior, his dreams of a title were dashed with the loss.
“When we came back and tied it in the fourth quarter, we had the game in hand,’’ Wade said, “but we didn’t make the plays later on. I thought we played hard the whole game, we just came up short.’’
Liberty (29-8), will face West-state rival Bolivar in the finals Saturday after Bolivar rallied to beat Marshall County in overtime in the other semis.
Tech was led by Johnson with 18 points and DeAndre Barnette with 12. The Crusaders are coached by former Maplewood coach Arnett Bodenhamer.
“It’s bittersweet,’’ said Bodenhamer on his observations of beating his old team in the semifinals. “But at the same time, I’m worried about how Liberty plays and not who we’re playing, and Maplewood was blocking our path to the finals.
Liberty, located in Jackson and the 2006 and ’07 state champs, has never lost a state tournament game, going for its 9th straight Saturday. Bodenhamer told his team during a late time out, “we’re either going back to our hotel or we’re going back to Jackson after the game, you guys make the choice.’’
The choice was to hold off a scrappy Maplewood unit.
Maplewood returns starters Jaleel Queary and Darryl Clack and valuable No. 6 man Jason Stone, a freshman. But gone are Lee, Wade and Enrico Buchanan.
“Liberty is at an elite level, where we want to get to,’’ Wilson said. “Our goal is to get back here next year and win it all.’’