ATHENS, Tenn. -- It will be a battle of District tournament champions here at McMinn County High School on Thursday with the Region 3-AA title on the line.
Neither team had an easy trip to the championship game as McMinn Central finally overcame the Brainerd Panthers in the first semifinal Tuesday night with a 55-47 victory in a game that Brainerd controlled for the first 29 minutes.
The Central Purple Pounders gave Howard more than a tough time before the Hustlin' Tigers finally pulled out a 52-41 win.
Howard had the upper hand for most of the game, but Central never backed down and never gave the Hustlin' Tigers a chance to relax.
Brainerd's season ends at 20-13 while Central finishes with 16 wins against 11 defeats.
Thursday night's championship game is set to begin at 6:30.
McMINN CENTRAL 55, BRAINERD 47: The Chargers bolted to a 10-2 lead midway through the first quarter and it looked like a cakewalk was in the making, but the Panthers had other ideas.
Brainerd was behind 14-8 when the second quarter started, but the Panthers -- more specifically senior Jay Besley -- took charge and scored all 13 points in the quarter as the Chargers could only counter with one field goal as Brainerd had a 21-16 lead at the break.
McMinn Central started picking up the intensity a bit in the second half and tied the score at 27-all following a layup by Bradley Ward with 2:13 showing in the third quarter.
Besley scored on a nice drive on the wing before Marques Tipton bagged a 3 at the buzzer as Brainerd's lead was five points when the fourth quarter began.
The Chargers kept the pressure on as the game continued to get closer and they finally regained the lead at 43-42 following a nice inside move by Max Miller with 3:10 play.
That was the beginning of the end for the Panthers as McMinn Central used a 11-0 run in the next two minutes to gain the upper hand.
It was 52-42 by the time Besley broke Brainerd's long drought (3:32) with a 3 with 59 seconds to play as the Chargers were able to run out the clock before the Panthers got any closer.
"We just made too many mistakes down the stretch," moaned Brainerd coach Robert High once the final horn sounded.
"You have to play four quarters in a game like this, but we only played three and a half. We didn't take care of the basketball and we gave them too many second shots. It was more about what we didn't do than what they did to win this game.
"I'm happy with the way we played, but I'm never happy with a loss. I'm sure the sun will still come up tomorrow, but you're supposed to win the game when you lead for three and a half quarters," the veteran coach added.
The Chargers improved to 28-3 with their 10th straight win. Coach Doug Armstrong was just glad to see the tide finally turn his team's way in the waning minutes.
"We played so poorly for much of the game, but we started penetrating from the top and finally started getting some decent looks. We've been backed up in a corner before and battled our way back, but this was a high-pressure game.
"I was really anxious there for a while, but we finally started playing McMinn Central-style basketball. A game like this should help us on Thursday night, but you're dad gum right I'm happy that we won," Armstrong concluded with a big grin.
Josh Scudder topped the Chargers with 19 points while Tim Webb finally warmed up to finish with 16.
Besley was tops for Brainerd with 18 points while Tipton was next with a dozen.
Brainerd won the battle of the boards by a 34-33 margin with Devonte Cooper snagging 14 for the Panthers. Dimitri Glenn had eight. Ward was tops for the Chargers with 10 caroms while Miller grabbed nine.
HOWARD 52, CENTRAL 41: The Hustlin' Tigers had defeated Central three times before Tuesday's game, but somebody forgot to tell the Purple Pounders that they were supposedly the underdog.
Central's plan was to sag at least two or three defenders down low on big Brandon Walters, which was somewhat effective as the big man only had six points in the first half.
The Pounders had a 5-0 lead at the start as both teams were ice cold from the field. Howard responded with six straight points at the end, but Robert Cobb's putback at the buzzer gave Central a 9-8 lead when the first quarter ended.
Cudjoe Young's 3 to start the second period gave Howard the lead, but a drive by Dewaun Swafford knotted the score at 11-all with 7:27 showing.
Howard then scored seven straight points while Central went more than five minutes without scoring. Colton Morgan broke the streak for Central with a free throw at the 2:08 mark and Cobb made it 18-14 with a layup late, but Antonio Smith's layup at the buzzer gave the Hustlin' Tigers a 20-14 lead at the half.
Howard scored 11 of the first 13 points in the second half and appeared to be pulling away. The difference was 36-21 when the final quarter began.
Play got sloppy in that final eight minutes as Howard enjoyed its biggest lead of 50-32 with 2:57 to play following a pair of free throws by Young.
Chris Norwood sank two more charity tosses with 1:29 to play for a 52-35 Howard lead before Central closed the game on a 6-0 run for the final 11-point difference.
"It's a 'W' but I'm not at all pleased with the way we played," said Howard coach Walter "Moose" McGary after his team had improved to 28-5.
"I know that we can play so much better, but we got selfish and stopped sharing the ball. That was our worst game in the last two and a half weeks, but hopefully we got the bad one out of our system.
"I know it's hard to beat the same team four times in one season, but we'll have to execute better if we hope to win on Thursday. Central is a pesky team and they had a good game plan for us tonight. It could get embarrassing on Thursday if we don't do a better job on the boards," McGary added.
Central coach Rick Rogers was just thrilled that his team advanced to this point, knowing that a lot of other teams were already finished for the year.
"I said at the beginning of the season that we were the darkhorse, but for us to be in the Region semifinal is just icing on the cake for us. We knew how good Howard was coming in, but we just couldn't hit any shots tonight.
"We've gone about as far as our talent would take us as it's been a great season for us. We beat teams like East Hamilton, Tyner and Meigs in recent days, so we earned our way. We hate to see our season end, but we're hoping that Howard goes all the way. We have a lot of respect for Coach McGary and all of their guys," Rogers praised.
Walters and Young both scored 15 points to lead the Howard attack while Smith finished with seven. Howard enjoyed a 35-30 edge in rebounds with Walters dominating with 13. He also had at least eight blocked shots as the shorter Central players simply couldn't get past hiim.
Morgan was tops for Central with 13 points while David Holley and Swafford followed with nine each.
Cobb, Holley and Dakota Smith all had six rebounds for the Purple Pounders.
Brainerd 8 13 11 15 -- 47
McMinn Central 14 2 11 28 -- 55
BRAINERD (47) -- Besley 18, Stewart, Tipton 12, Otis, Glenn 2, D. Moore, O. Moore 6, Cooper 4, Stubbs 5, Lee.
McMINN CENTRAL (55) -- Ward 4, Scudder 19, Cook 2, Webb 16, Farrar, Boyd 6, Holley, Miller 8, Kepley.
3-POINT GOALS: Brainerd 4 (Besley 3, Tipton); McMinn Central 4 (Scudder 3, Webb).
Central 9 5 7 20 -- 41
Howard 8 12 16 16 -- 52
CENTRAL (41) -- Swafford 9, Cobb 5, Hill, Morgan 13, Billingsley, Smith 2, Holley 9, Tiller, Hayes 3, Stewart.
HOWARD (52) -- Smith 7, Cameron, Harris 3, Walton 2, Walters 15, McCauley 5, Brummitt 3, Young 15, Norwood 2, Brown, Byrd.
3-POINT GOALS: Central 3 (Morgan, Holley, Hayes); Howard 2 (Smith, Young).
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)