The setting was perfect for a great high school basketball game Friday night at Tyner.
The gym was packed long before the boys game started, it was freezing cold outside and burning up inside and two big-time rivals in District 6-AA were battling for first-place bragging rights.
That honor goes to the Brainerd Panthers as they pulled through in the second half and headed back to North Moore Road still unbeaten after five games and all alone in first place in 6-AA at 4-0 following the 55-51 victory.
Tyner is now 3-2 overall and 3-1 in district play.
Brainerd coach Levar Brown has stressed for a long time how important it is for his team to come out and play well at the start of the third quarter. “Winning the first four minutes” is how he describes it.
The Panthers were able to do just that as they outscored the Rams by a 13-8 margin in that time frame as they turned a 23-22 halftime deficit into a 37-31 lead following a layup by big Jessie Walker with 2:59 left in the third period.
Six straight points by Walker in the final 90 allowed Brainerd to build its biggest lead of the game at 43-36 before a 3 by Tyner’s Michael Little at the buzzer got the Rams within four with eight minutes to play.
Back-to-back buckets by Amon Grace and Solomon Bridgeman allowed Tyner to tie the score at 43-43 with 5:54 to play, but just as quickly, Joseph Norwood converted a three-point play and Walker scored on another layup to give the visitors a 48-43 lead with 4:47 to play.
Jaylen Bowens scored on a drive down the lane with 1:36 to play as Tyner got within three at 50-47, but Malik Hymon scored five points in the final minute, including three of four critical free throws in the last 23 seconds, to secure the win for the Panthers.
“We always have a close game with Tyner and tonight was no different. There was a lot of emotion with a huge crowd, but I thought we showed a lot of heart in the second half. We played to the crowd in the first half and took too many bad shots, but we just had to play our game in the second half and it paid off,” said Brainerd’s Brown afterward.
“Even as big as this win is, tomorrow’s graduation at UTC is even bigger as Stephen Cook, one of my former assistants, is getting his degree in criminal justice. He and E’Jay (Tyner coach Ward) were assistants for me the past five years and they’re all like family to me,” Brown added.
Ward is now Tyner’s head coach after Keitha Booker got promoted to an administrative job. After spending several seasons as Brown’s assistant, he probably knows the Brainerd players better than his own. He was surely disappointed his team didn’t prevail, but there will be plenty of chances for his team to redeem themselves.
“It’s still December and certainly not the end of the world,” Ward said in a quiet tone just outside the Tyner dressing room.
“We want to be prepared in February and games like this will help us do that. The stage was set with a huge crowd. We couldn’t have asked for a better setting, but it was a great rivalry game and just a matter of who wanted it more.
“We got killed on the boards and we missed way too many free throws, but even so, we still had a chance to win at the end. We have to take care of business at home, but I guess we’ll have to return the favor at their place. I feel good about our effort, but unfortunately, we didn’t deliver the mail and let this one get away.
“Unfortunately, one team had to lose, but we aren’t going to hang our heads and I’m sure we’ll learn from it,” Ward concluded with a smile.
Walker was one of three Brainerd players in double figures as he finished with a game-high 23 points. Norwood was next with 17 while Hymon added 10.
Brainerd also had an impressive but unofficial 41-27 edge on the boards with Walker, Norwood and Hymon all grabbing 10 apiece.
Jeremy Elston was tops for Tyner with 16 points. Grace was next with 10 while Bridgeman and Little both tossed in eight points. Grace also grabbed nine rebounds while Bridgeman claimed eight.
Tyner has home games on Monday against Walker Valley and on Tuesday against Central while Brainerd will host Red Bank on Monday.
TYNER GIRLS 49, BRAINERD 48: The Lady Panthers led from the opening whistle until late in the fourth quarter, but Keniah Watkins scored on a drive from the wing with 1:28 to play and was fouled. She converted the three-point play for a 48-46 lead.
Brainerd’s Kimia Carter scored on a drive down the lane with 33 seconds left to knot the score and overtime looked like a possibility, but Tyner’s Jermiya McKenzie sank the second of two free throws with 11.3 seconds to play for the margin of victory.
Watkins scored 24 points to lead Tyner, now 6-2 overall and 2-1 in 6-AA. Keonna McCutcheon was also in double figures for the Lady Rams with a dozen.
Carter was tops for Brainerd with 22 points while Kia Render had 13 before fouling out late.
BRAINERD 12 15 8 13 -- 48
TYNER 11 11 8 19 – 49
BRAINERD (48) – Render 13, Jarrett 1, Merritt 6, Smith 2, Carter 22, Robinson 4, Ward, Jones.
TYNER (49) – McKenzie 2, Cooley, Cosey 2, Melton 2, McCutcheon 12, Watkins 24, Taylor 3, Thomas, Wyatt.
3-POINT GOALS: Brainerd 1 (Render); Tyner 2 (Watkins 2).
BRAINERD 12 10 21 12 -- 55
TYNER 12 11 16 12 -- 51
BRAINERD (55) – Norwood 17, Wofford, Hymon 10, Halfacre 2, Burrage, Hampton 3, Williams, Walker 23, Freeman.
TYNER (51) – Jackson, Bridgeman 8, Grace 10, Craddock 4, Little 8, Elston 16, Bowens 5, Halfacre, Strong.
3-POINT GOALS: Brainerd none; Tyner 4 (Craddock, Little 2, Elston).
(email John Hunt at email@example.com)