MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – The Howard Hustlin’ Tigers finally got the monkey off their back and have lived to play another day at the boys state basketball tournament.
Walter "Moose" McGary has been the Howard coach for the past eight years and they've advanced to Murfreesboro on six occasions. On Thursday night, they advanced past the first round for only the third time in those six trips.
Facing the East Nashville Eagles in the quarterfinal round of the BlueCross Basketball Championships here at Middle Tennessee State University’s Murphy Center, the Hustlin’ Tigers took care of business and advanced to the semifinal round on Friday with a 59-43 victory over the Eagles.
With the victory, Howard will face the Jackson Southside Hawks, who eliminated Knoxville Fulton by a 53-39 final in Thursday's final contest.
Livingston Academy beat Gibbs by a 76-50 in another quarterfinal and will face Christ Presbyterian, the defending Class AA state champ, which beat Memphis Mitchell by a 71-47 in a rematch from last year's state championship game.
“I think we got the monkey off our back by winning this first game, but I’m sure that our best game is still out there,” said McGary after his team had improved to 28-5 with their ninth straight win.
“When my guys come focused and ready to play, we’re pretty hard to beat, but we’ll have a tough test tomorrow night. I’m just glad we don’t play the morning game,” McGary added.
The first quarter was nip and tuck as the game was tied three times in the first four minutes.
The Eagles’ Bobby Scott nailed a jumper from the line with 2:40 to play in the first quarter as East Nashville grabbed its first lead at 8-6, but a 14-0 run by the Hustlin’ Tigers over the next 4:38 allowed Howard to take control at 20-8 following a 3 from the corner by Chris Walton with 6:40 left in the half.
Cudjoe Young scored on a drive down the lane to give Howard its biggest lead of the half at 28-15 with 1:43 to play, but Christian Scott scored back-to-back buckets in the final 90 seconds to get the Eagles to within 28-19 at intermission.
Howard’s Brandon Walters opened the second half by making the first of two free throws as that nine-point lead stretched to 10, but the Eagles scored 10 unanswered points to tie the game at 29-all following a drive by Terry Holt with 5:02 to play.
Xavier Harris responded with a drive from the wing as Howard regained the lead, but the Eagles got a four-point play from Holt to take a 33-31 lead with 4:35 showing in the third stanza.
Young and Rashad Brummitt scored consecutive buckets and Walters added two free throws as Howard’s lead was 37-33 with 2:21 to play. The difference was 42-37 when the fourth quarter began.
Bobby Scott got the Eagles within four with a free throw to start the final stanza before Shalique Cameron nailed a 3 and later a free throw as Howard finally seemed to take control at 46-38 with 5:42 to play.
East Nashville got to within four at 46-42 with 4:22 to play, but Young hit both ends of a one-and-one and then converted a nice drive along the wing as the lead was once again eight points.
With the clock becoming more and more a factor, the Eagles were forced to foul in hopes that Howard would falter at the line, but that wasn’t the case as the Hustlin’ Tigers converted six of eight from the charity stripe in the quarter and 17 of 23 for the game.
“Rebounding and defense pulled us through, but we did a good job of taking care of the ball toward the end of the game,” McGary praised.
“I don’t know what my guys were thinking at the start of the second half, but I told them that they had better start playing. They responded in a positive way. And we finally got the right five guys out there.
“We got the lead and wanted to melt the clock in the fourth quarter. We’ve gotten better at that, but we hit 17 of 23 free throws and that was a plus as well,” McGary added.
East Nashville coach Jim Fey wasn’t the least bit pleased with the way his kids played.
“I told them before the game that we could win if we played well, but we didn’t,” he began his post-game comments.
“We did a good job of getting back in it to start the second half, but all of a sudden we started taking a bunch of jump shots and that didn’t work very well. We were impatient on offense and took a lot of bad shots, but we’re a much-better team than that.
“The foul totals were lopsided, not because of officiating, but because Howard decided to take the ball inside. They didn’t foul us when we were taking all of those jumpers. Their size was certainly a factor and number 50 (Walters) is a big dude. He didn’t block that many shots, but he surely changed a bunch.
“I feel like we exceeded expectations for the season, but I was hoping we’d have a better finish than this,” Fey concluded.
Walters scored 19 points to lead the Howard attack and he also finished with 14 rebounds as the Hustlin’Tigers won the battle of the boards by a whopping 49-26 margin.
Young was next with 16 points as he hit five of eight field goal attempts and six of seven from the line.
Walton only scored seven points, but he hauled down a dozen rebounds.
For East Nashville, Holt led the way with 15 points while Bobby Scott finished with a dozen points and nine rebounds.
Howard shot 41.7 percent from the field on 20 of 48 while the Eagles hit just 16 of 57 attempts for 28.1 percent.
The Eagles finish a fine season at 27-8.
Howard 15 13 14 17 -- 59
East Nashville 8 11 18 6 -- 43
HOWARD (59) – Smith 2, Cameron 5, Walton 7, Harris 8, Walters 19, Brummitt 2, Young 16.
EAST NASHVILLE (43) – Upton 2, B. Scott 12, Smith, Holt 15, Russell 2, Vaughn, C. Scott 5, McGhee 2, Wells, City 5, Booker, Rucker, Brown, Leer.
3-POINT GOALS: Howard 2-9 (Cameron, Walton); East Nashville 3-15 (Holt 2, City)
(Email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)