ATHENS, Tenn. -- The Region 3-AA championship game between the Howard Hustlin' Tigers and the McMinn Central Chargers was more than worth the price of admission here at McMinn County High School Thursday night.
The Chargers had an incredible comeback in Tuesday's win over Brainerd and they were forced to do the same two nights later, but it didn't turn out that way against Howard as the Hustlin' Tigers won their second-straight region tournament title with a harrowing 60-59 victory that wasn't decided until the final horn.
The win marked the third straight region tournament title for the Hustlin' Tigers.
It was -- to sum it up in three short words -- a great game.
Howard had extended a 35-30 halftime lead to 48-41 when the fourth quarter began and that's when the Chargers started their big push.
Max Miller cut Howard's lead to 56-53 with a pair of free throws at the 1:32 mark before teammate Tim Webb knotted the score with three straight charity tosses 31 seconds later.
With fans from both teams on their feet and cheering at the top of their lungs, it came down to a 60-second contest between a pair of teams that had a combined record of 53-8 coming in.
Cudjoe Young put Howard back on top with two free throws with 53.1 seconds to play while Webb could only sink the second of two some 18 seconds later.
Young broke away for an uncontested slam with 14 seconds left to give the Hustlin' Tigers a 60-57 lead before Webb countered with a layup two seconds later to trim the difference to just one point.
Young was fouled on Howard's next possession and went to the charity stripe for two shots with 8.9 seconds to play.
He missed both and McMinn Central quickly called a timeout to set up what could have been a winning shot at the end.
Max Miller, who already had connected on two 3-pointers, got an open look from the right wing, but his shot was off the mark. Teammate Denzel Boyd was in the right place at the right time to claim the rebound and to make the short putback, but it too bounced off the back of the rim as the final horn sounded.
Whew, what a hectic finish to an outstanding high school basketball game!!!
"That's a coach-killer right there," Howard's Walter "Moose" McGary said in his post-game comments when asked about those missed free throws in the final 30 seconds.
"I was just hoping that we could persevere there at the end. There were a lot of momentum swings in this game, but I credit our defense for pulling us through. Those guys can shoot, so for us to hold them to just 59 points was huge on our part.
"I don't think they're used to coming from behind, but we had some key rebounds there at the end. I can't be any more pleased with the effort and I'm happy for our seniors because they get to have one final game at home on Monday night.
"I felt like we could have beaten them worse than we did, but mistakes hurt us at the end. I was just trying to break their momemtum when I called our last timeout, but it was still a close game and we had to refocus," McGary added.
The Chargers did a really good job defensively on Brandon Walters, Howard's big 6-9 center, as they had him surrounded with two and three defenders all game long. He didn't get many open looks, but he more than made up for it as he snagged 18 rebounds and finished with 19 points.
He also blocked at least six shots, rerouted several others and was named the tournament MVP for his performance.
"It was a good game, but we had to fight even harder when they came back. We came together and played as a team, but we just had to get a hand in their face on that last possession," Walters explained as he exited the Howard dressing room.
McMinn Central coach Doug Armstrong had nothing but good things to say about both teams.
"I'm sure that we're a better basketball team right now than we were before this game started. We believed that we could come back and we proved that we have a lot of heart," the former Ooltewah head coach said later.
"It's disapppointing that we didn't win, but we'll have to get back up, dust ourselves off a little and get ready to play again on Monday. That will be a real test for us.
"Tonight we ran into an outstanding opponent. I'm confident that Howard is the class of the teams from the Chattanooga area this year, so for us to play them in the region final proves that we both had pretty good years.
"I felt good there at the end with the ball in our hands and plenty of time on the clock. I thought we were going to win as we tried to attack the rim. We had two pretty good shots at it, but they just didn't fall. I thought it might come down to the last shot and I had a lot of confidence in my kids under those circumstances," Armstrong concluded.
While Walters had 19 points to lead Howard, Xavier Harris also had some key buckets to finish with 15 points while Young added 10.
Webb was the scoring leader for the Chargers with 19 points. Josh Scudder followed with 13 while Miller finished with eight.
Howard won the battle of the boards by a 31-25 margin. While Walters had 18, teammate Chris Walton snagged eight. Bradley Ward had eight caroms for the Chargers while Webb claimed five.
Howard is now 26-5 and will be at home on Monday night to host the Region 4 runner-up Dekalb County while McMinn Central, now 28-4 after an 11-game winning streak was snapped, will be on the road against Livingston Academy, which won the Region 4 title by a 71-57 final..
Howard 20 15 13 12 -- 60
McMinn Central 18 12 11 18 -- 59
HOWARD (60) -- Smith 7, Harris 15, Walton 5, Walters 19, McCauley 4, Brummitt, Young 10.
McMINN CENTRAL (59) -- Ward 7, Scudder 13, Cook, Webb 19, Farrar, Boyd 5, Holley 5, Miller 8, Kepley 2.
3-POINT GOALS: Howard 2 (Smith, Walton); McMinn Central 8 (Scudder 3, Webb 2, Holley, Miller 2).
ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM: Colton Morgan, David Holley (Central); Jay Besley, Marques Tipton (Brainerd); Josh Scudder, Tim Webb, Max Miller (McMinn Central); Xavier Harris, Cudjoe Young, Brandon Walters--MVP (Howard).
(Email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)