MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – What an amazing turnaround for the Brainerd Panther basketball team this season.
They were banned from post-season play last year after that unfortunate brawl with Austin-East, but both teams went above and beyond TSSAA requirements and that post-season ban was lifted in early August after school had started.
And now, about seven months later, the Panthers are a win away from playing for another Class AA state basketball title.
Brainerd eliminated Pearl Cohn here at MTSU’s Murphy Center late Wednesday afternoon by a 76-73 final, but it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always pretty as the Panthers improved to 23-10.
They had to beat three good teams to win the region, including ranked teams Loudon and Sweetwater before knocking off Disrict 6-AA rival Howard in the final.
Apparently, they were more than up for Wednesday’s challenge against the Firebirds, a team that was dead last in their district a year ago before finishing their season with a respectable 20-11 record.
Brainerd coach Levar Brown rarely shows emotion on the outside, but you can tell the gears are turning internally when his team is involved in a close game. He was just happy that his team had the chance to be in this year’s tournament and he was even happier to have won and advanced to Friday’s semifinal against East Nashville.
“These kids have had huge hearts all year and we were extremely excited to have the opportunity to play here this week. We anticipated a dog fight with Pearl Cohn today and we were fortunate to be on the winning side today,” he expressed in his post-game comments.
“We don’t always get the job done on offense, but we rely on our defense and we try to force other teams into mistakes with our pressure. I thought our second group totally changed the tempo of the game and I’m really happy we won.
“We’ve face teams with size before, but we’re blessed to have a day to prepare for it,” he said in reference to Friday’s game with the Eagles.
“It will be a tough task for sure, but we just have to come back ready to battle like we did today,” Brown added.
The Firebirds dominated the opening quarter. Miquan Tucker and William Shaw both hit 3s to start the game as Pearl Cohn had a 6-1 lead in the first 90 seconds. The difference was 13-7 when the quarter ended.
A drive by Shaw to start the second stanza extended that lead to 15-7 before the Panthers responded with a 12-0 run, capped by a layup from Remeo Hubbard with 5:52 left in the half for a 19-15 Brainerd lead.
Shaw sank two free throws with 8.1 seconds left to knot the score at 31, but a 3 from Kevin Halfacre at the buzzer allowed the Panthers to take a 34-31 lead into the dressing room at intermission.
Antonio Anthony started the second half with a three-point play to knot the score again, but Brainerd regained control with a 13-3 run over the next four minutes and had their biggest lead of the game at 10 points at 47-37 with 4:22 left in the third period.
Halfacre canned another long 3 at the end of the quarter to extend Brainerd’s lead to 59-50 with eight minutes to play.
The Firebirds weren’t ready to give up and they started a slow comeback when the final stanza began, knotting the score at 71-71 on a long 3 by Tucker with 1:46 to play.
Trey Owten then scored the final five points to secure Brainerd’s win, including the second of two free throws with 15.2 seconds that gave his team a 76-73 lead.
Pearl Cohn called a timeout with 6.8 seconds to set up a possible game-tying shot, but Owten stole the inbounds pass and dribbled off the rest of the time as Brainerd’s bench erupted in celebration.
Pearl Cohn coach Terry Cole said that his team had a specific play called for that final possession, but it never materialized.
“We had a good play in place, but they got that steal and we didn’t get a final shot,” he said later.
“I can’t say enough about these kids. We had some really big hills to climb after last year, but these kids totally bought into what we were trying to teach and I don’t ever have to question our effort.
“Undoubtedly, we could have done some things better today. There were times when we could have folded, but we never put our head down and just kept battling. What we accomplished this season will only help us in the future,” he added.
LaDerron Freeman and Halfacre topped Brainerd’s offensive effort with 16 points apiece while Owten finished with a dozen.
Shaw was tops for Pearl Cohn with 23 points while Marshall was next with 16. Danmion Allen and Anthony were also in double figures with 11 points apiece.
Brainerd also won the rebound battle by a 36-32 margin after holding a 20-14 edge in the first half.
Freeman had a whopping 17 boards for the Panthers, including an impressive 10 on the offensive end, while Cameron Evans was next with five. Marshall was tops for his team with 13.
PEARL COHN 13 18 19 23 -- 73
BRAINERD 7 27 25 17 -- 76
PEARL COHN (73) – Shaw 23, Anthony 11, Allen 11, Marshall 16, Tucker 8, Byrd, Watkins 2, Griffin 2.
BRAINERD (76) – Owten 12, Freeman 16, Halfacre 16, Williams 4, McKibbens 7, Hubbard 2, Lattimore 6, Chaney 6, Ward, Evans 7.
REBOUNDS: Pearl Cohn 32 (Marshall 13); Brainerd 36 (Freeman 17).
FIELD GOALS: Pearl Cohn 24 of 47 for 51.1 percent; Brainerd 27 of 62 for 43.5 percent.
3-POINT GOALS: Pearl Cohn 3-13 for 23.1 percent (Shaw 1-3, Anthony 0-2, Allen 0-1, Tucker 2-7); Brainerd 11 of 22 for 50 percent (Owten 1-2, Freeman 0-1, Halfacre 4-5, Williams 0-1, McKibbens 1-5, Lattimore 2-5, Chaney 2-2, Evans 1-1).
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)