Tyner boys' basketball coach Gerald Harris had a message for his team before Tuesday's TSSAA Class AA state sectional home game. He wrote on the dry-erase board in the locker room: "In order to win the state, you've got to get in."
The Rams are in.
Tyner showed stretches of dominance, particularly in the middle quarters, but had to fend off a late Livingston Academy rally to secure a 76-71 victory over the Wildcats.
The state tournament will be held March 12-15 at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. Tyner (25-3) will be making its first trip since 2010.
The Rams never had a lead until DeVante Jones converted a four-point play to make it 18-17 at the 6:19 mark of the second quarter. But by the time Sadik Spence, who finished with 14 points, made consecutive 3-point shots in the final 23 seconds of the half, the margin was 42-27.
"Just one good second quarter didn't do it," Livingston Academy coach Jimmy Miller said. "They played solid and smart throughout in the second half. That's the most athletic team by far we've seen this year. It's one of the most athletic teams I've coached against."
Tyner looked to be in control late in the third quarter with its largest lead of 60-40, but the Wildcats went on a shooting binge, prompting Harris to call time out with 3:22 to play and his team up 66-61.
"Guys get deflated when the other team starts hitting big shots," Harris said. "The biggest thing I wanted to tell them was to hang in there. That's all. We were still winning the game. I told them, 'Let's go back out there, take care of the ball and let's go to the state.'"
Livingston Academy had a chance to cut further into the lead, but Daaron Maston intercepted a pass at midcourt and livened the crowd with his ensuing basket.
"A dunk will do that," Harris said.
Four-of-6 free-throw shooting and a layup by Jones pushed the advantage back to 12 for the Rams and proved to be enough despite their 2-for-8 free-throw shooting in the last 48.4 seconds.
"We had to pick up the defensive intensity to get us going," said Tyner senior DeQwan Hughes, who energized the home crowd with two dunks in the first half. "A lack of defense is why we lost that big lead. Our offense comes from our defense."
Jones led Tyner with 24 points. Alex Watkins -- who Harris said "played like a man" -- totaled 18 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks.
"Our guys played at a hard speed all year long," Miller said. "They put so much pressure on the ball, and we're so small, it was so hard to get outside shots off. We took it to the rim, but I know they had double-digit blocks against us. We were just outsized and struggled with their athleticism and speed."
The Wildcats did get off some outside shots because 11 of their 23 field goals were 3-pointers. Harris admitted his players failed to close on the shooters a few times but acknowledged that Livingston Academy made some difficult shots.
"That team right there is used to going to the state," Harris said. "They didn't want to be the team that didn't go. They left it out there on the line. I'm proud of them, but I'm proud of my guys, too."
Wade Eldridge paced Livingston (22-11) with 22 points, and although he's a post player he made three of the 3s. Zac Craig added 18 points, and their 3-point leader with four, Trent Nivens, scored 15.
"It's been amazing all year long what this team has done," Miller said. "We've been outsized and outmanned almost every time out, and still we've been competitive. Everything I've asked of them, they've done it."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.