The Tyner Rams played their last basketball game at home on Tuesday night, but they didn't want it to be the final game of the season.
A 28-point second quarter may have been the turning point as the Rams advanced to next week's state tournament with their 76-71 victory over the visiting Livingston Academy Wildcats.
It looked like a track meet in the first quarter as both teams raced up and down the court with more energy to burn than they could control. The score was deadlocked at 14-all when that first stanza ended.
The second quarter was a different story.
Trent Nivens scored on a drive from the wing and Wade Eldridge sank the second of two free throws in the first 90 seconds as the Wildcats had a three-point lead.
DeVante Jones, who scored 22 points to lead the Tyner attack, made a four-point play with 6:19 left before intermission and the Rams regained the lead for the last time at 18-17.
That lead slowly increased and was 29-25 when Sadik Spence scored for the first time. With the talented senior scoring 11 points in the final 2:27, Tyner broke the game open late as Spence canned a pair of 3s in the last 20 seconds, including one at the buzzer that put the Rams up by 15 and sent the Tyner faithful into a frenzy.
The Wildcats were down at this point, but they surely weren't out.
Both teams played on fairly even terms in the third stanza as Tyner's lead had increased to 60-43 with a quarter remaining, but that's when Livingston Academy started playing and the Wildcats started connecting from long range.
The visitors from north of Cookeville went on a 15-2 run from the 6:18 mark until there was 3:22 to play to get within five points at 66-61 when Zac Craig hit the last of four straight 3s by his team.
The Wildcats forced a Tyner turnover and had a chance to get even closer, but Daaron Mastin had a big steal and a thunderous slam at the 3:02 mark to put Tyner back up by seven at 68-61.
Tyner then scored six of the next seven points as the lead stretched back to a dozen at 74-62 with 1:18 to play, but again, the Wildcats weren't ready to surrender.
The visitors went on a 9-2 run in the final minute and got back to within five points one more time following two free throws by Craig with 17 seconds left, but nobody else scored as Tyner earned its first trip back to the state tournament in four years with its 14th straight win.
"We're going to the state, baby," Tyner coach Gerald Harris blurted after getting doused with a cooler full of cold water.
"I should have known that something was up when they asked for my cell phone. I knew better than to think they wanted to take a picture, but I didn't care," he said, still wiping water from his brow.
"We finally made some stops at the end, but I'm so glad that they finally ran out of time. Livingston Academy has a great team and I knew they were capable of coming back like they did. They've been to the state tournament a bunch of times and they weren't going down easy, but that's what good 3-point shooting will do for you.
"But we hung in there. We didn't control the tempo initially and we were in foul trouble the whole first half, but we've been in tight games before. My guys came to play tonight and they were fully confident that we were going to win, even when it got close at the end.
"I told my guys that in order to win a state title, you have to get there first. That's where we're headed," Harris concluded.
Wildcat coach Jimmy Miller had comments much like his Tyner counterpart.
"I've been playing and coaching against Tyner for a long time and that's the best team I've ever seen them have. They are so athletic at every position and they made us work so hard for everything we got. We were never able to get anything going offensively, but Tyner was just too fast and they shoot the ball too well," Miller praised the Rams.
"It was hard for us to bounce back down by 17 at the half, but my guys played their hearts out and that's what they've been doing all year long. We had a few unforced errors that hurt, but most of them were a result of fatigue," the fourth-year head coach added.
Jones set the pace for Tyner with 22 points, but senior Alex Watkins may have been the unsung hero for the Rams as he finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocked shots. Perhaps his biggest victory came at the free throw line where he canned four of five.
Spence and DeQuan Hardwick were also in double figures with 14 and 10 points, respectively.
Eldridge scored 22 points to lead the Wildcats while teammate Craig was next with 21. Nivens finished with a dozen while Kaleb Qualls followed with nine and Crowder seven.
The Wildcats, ending their season at 22-11, had a 33-28 edge in rebounding as Eldridge snagged a dozen while Crowder and Craig had six apiece. Watkins was the leader for Tyner with his 14. Rodney Watson and Kevin Cameron were next with four each.
LIVINGSTON ACADEMY 14 13 16 28 -- 71
TYNER 14 28 18 16 -- 76
LIVINGSTON ACADEMY (71) -- Nivens 12, Eldridge 22, Crowder 7, Craig 21, Qualls 9, Hollars, Linder.
TYNER (76) -- Watson 2, Spence 14, Mastin 6, Jones 22, Hardwick 10, Cameron 4, Strickland, Watkins 18.
3-POINT GOALS: Livingston Academy 11 (Nivens 3, Eldridge 3, Craig 3, Qualls 2); Tyner 6 (Spence 3, Jones 3).
(email John Hunt at nomarathonmoose@Comcast.net)