The Tyner Rams are clearly the best Class AA boys basketball team in this area, but the Brainerd Panthers are a close second.
These two talented teams played for the fourth time on Thursday night, the latest being for the Region 3-AA title at East Ridge's Catherine Neely Gymnasium.
And for the fourth straight time, the Rams were victorious.
Tyner, now 24-3 with its 12th straight win, beat the Panthers by double digits in the first three games, but this latest skirmish was much closer and a dandy game to watch. Brainerd is now 22-7 with Tyner being the only local team to beat the Panthers this season.
Tyner ended up winning by a 61-55 final, but the outcome wasn't determined until the final minute.
DeQuan Hardwick opened the scoring with a layup as the Rams led 2-0 before Orlando Moore scored six straight points to put Brainerd on top. The Panthers had the upper hand at 10-6 when the first quarter ended.
The game was tied twice in the second quarter, but Brainerd still had the lead at 23-22 when the halftime horn sounded.
Tyner finally regained the lead at 28-27 when DeVante Jones scored on a drive from the left wing with 3:45 left in the third, but Brainerd knotted the score at 37-all when the quarter ended after Windell Graham sank the first of two free throws with 10 seconds remaining.
Tyner's next lead came at 47-46 with 4:11 left on a layup by Rodney Watson and the lead swapped hands two more times before the Rams took the lead for the last time on a free throw by Kevin Cameron with 1:37 to play.
Jones canned a huge 3 from the key with 1:05 showing to give Tyner a 56-52 lead. Brainerd got to within three at 58-55 on a jumper from the key by Isaiah Shropshire before Jones sank a free throw and a final layup in the last 30 seconds to finally pull away for the win.
"What a great game," said Brainerd coach Levar Brown after a talk with his team.
"We played hard and I liked our effort, but we had a couple of mental lapses late that proved costly for us. But Tyner is tough and they stay composed. And it doesn't hurt that they have one of the best point guards around," the coach praised tournament MVP Sadik Spence, who finished with 16 points to lead Tyner.
"We worked all week in preparation for their press and I felt like we did a good job handling it, but we left the Jones kid open one time too many. He hit that 3 late and that was the ballgame, but I feel sure we'll be ready to play again on Monday," he concluded, thinking ahead to a possible road trip to Baxter where the Panthers will likely face the Upperman Bees.
"This was the fourth time we've played Brainerd and there weren't too many adjustments to be made," said Tyner coach Gerald Harris.
"That one was a little closer than the other three, but it seemed like we played from behind most of the game. We didn't stretch before the game and didn't go through our usual pre-game routine, but we handled adversity pretty well tonight.
"Our goal was to go to the state tournament and we've met the challenge up to this point. I knew it would come down to possessions late, but we made some big plays at critical moments. We had a couple of big 3s at the end, but both were set up by our defensive pressure.
"Defensive pressure has been our motto all season and that's what kept us in the game tonight. I'm so glad that we get to play our sectional game at home," he concluded, knowing his team will probably face Livingston Academy on Monday night.
While MVP Spence set the tone for the Rams with 16 points, Daaron Mastin and Jones were also in double figures with 12 and 10 points, respectively. Hardwick and Cameron both followed with eight apiece.
Moore had a big game for the Panthers and finished with 22. Tyree Stubbs, who had to sit out Brainerd's last two games after getting ejected from the district championship game last Tuesday, came back strong and finished with 16 points, including all 13 of his team's points in the second quarter.
Brainerd won the rebound battle by a 33-26 margin. Marquis Tipton only had two points, but he was a key on defense with a dozen rebounds. Moore added seven.
Alex Watkins only scored one point for the Rams, but he grabbed 10 rebounds while playing with a bum ankle and foul trouble in the second half.
Spence, Mastin and Jones were the all-tournament selections from Tyner while Tipton, Stubbs and Moore were picked from Brainerd. The others included McMinn Central's Josh Scudder and Skyler Farrar while the two from East Ridge included Eddie Hitchcock and Keion Jones.
BRAINERD 10 13 14 18 -- 55
TYNER 6 16 15 24 -- 61
BRAINERD (55) -- Stewart, Shropshire 6, Tipton 2, Evans, Graham 5, Stubbs 16, O. Moore 22, Lee, D. Moore 4.
TYNER (61) -- Watson 6, Spence 16, Mastin 12, Jones 10, Hardwick 8, Cameron 8, Howard, Watkins 1.
3-POINT GOALS: Brainerd 1 (Stubbs); Tyner 2 (Spence, Jones).
(email John Hunt at nomarathonmoose@Comcast.net)