With a dominant spurt over the middle two periods, Independence opened its second state tournament appearance Wednesday by downing Blackman 66-34 in the Class 4A quarterfinals at Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Center.
The Eagles, ranked No. 2 in the state at the end of the regular season, held Blackman without a field goal for more than eight minutes to close the second quarter and start the third – outscoring the Blaze 24-2 in a game-deciding sequence.
“Blackman has done an incredible job this season; they beat some really good teams in the postseason,” second-year Independence coach Mark Wilkins said after his Eagles (32-4) sewed up a semifinal matchup against Memphis East, a 60-51 comeback winner over Dobyns-Bennett in the quarterfinals.
“We came out with that intensity that, they can beat us. Give credit to our guys. We were able to go on one of those big runs. I think that’s kinda been our ‘M.O.’ all season.”
Against a Blackman squad that managed to control the tempo early, sophomore Tylan Lewis managed to make his presence felt by pushing the ball in transition and getting to the rim for a couple of baskets in a first quarter that ended with the Eagles leading 6-5.
“It’s just (having) a lot of heart,” Lewis said regarding his nose for the ball — five rebounds, four steals to go with 12 points — and his ability to finish at the other end. “I feel like it gives us an advantage when I try to get those easy points.”
Independence broke the game open over the next eight minutes, scoring off a couple of offensive rebounds before stretching a 12-10 cushion out to 25-12 by intermission.
“We talked about being aggressive (offensively), trying to hit some ‘home runs’, but I thought we got on our heels early,” Blaze coach Barry Wortman said. “We settled in, but you’ve got to give credit to a veteran Independence team. They score in bunches.
“We wanted to be aggressive, be on the attack. But you get in the arena and sometimes those things happen. They got it going a little bit, applied a little too much pressure.”
Starting three sophomores and just one senior, Blackman (21-12) couldn’t get the Eagles slowed at the start of the second half, as Independence opened with 11 straight points – seven from junior guard Jett Montgomery, who shook off a slow start to score a game-high 24 points.
“It’s a ‘next-play’ mentality for me,” said Montgomery, who started 3-for-9 from the floor before hitting 7 of his final 11 shots with a pair of 3-pointers. “My teammates help me out. When I miss a shot, they’re like ‘good shot, keep shooting’. My teammates keep me going.”
The performance represented a bounce-back outing for Montgomery, who was held to five points in the Eagles’ 46-42 sectional victory over Green Hill — but there was no hesitance on Wilkins’ part to put the ball in the junior guard’s hands.
“It’s neon green, as green (a light) as it can get,” the coach said. “We see it in practice. He makes shots very few guys can make because he’s worked so hard to do that. We believe so much in him. We’re always looking for him. He’s worked for these moments, and that makes it really easy for me to let him go, let great players make great plays.”
Behind that early flurry, Independence led 39-13 before Blackman broke its field goal drought with back-to-back Christian Johnson putbacks.
“We just couldn’t get the bleeding stopped,” Wortman said as the Blaze shot 33 percent (12-36) from the floor and committed 18 turnovers in the loss.
Matt Witt added 11 points for Independence. Johnson and senior Isaiah Divens scored 11 each to lead Blackman.
Helping key the Indy victory was a 28-25 rebounding advantage, as Witt finished with eight and Korben Walling seven.
“I can remember the offensive rebounds they got, unfortunately, but I know we got a lot of those as well,” Wilkins said after his first state tournament appearance following three sectional berths in six seasons at South Gibson.
“I’m proud of our guys. It takes all five guys. We talk about it. (Legendary coaches) Pat Riley and Pat Summitt talk about rebounding, if you really want to win at all – no rebounding, no rings. I think that’s kinda what makes us go. We get the rebound, we can get out and go really fast in transition.”
Independence 66, Blackman 34
I 6 19 22 19 – 66
B 5 7 10 12 – 34
Independence (66) – Jett Montgomery 24, Tylan Lewis 12, Josh Owens 4, Brayden Buck 3, Matt Witt 11, Kayden Ridley 3, Michael Ashley 3, Korben Walling 6
Blackman (34) – Garrison Eady 5, Isaiah Divens 11, Christian Johnson 11, Ethan Carson 4, James Mattingly 3
3-pointers – Independence 4 (Montgomery 2, Buck, Ashley), Blackman 2 (Eady, Mattingly)