MURFREESBORO, Tenn.-Howard senior forward Demontay Suttles held it in as long as he could. He sat silently in the media room as teammate Barry Griffin and coach Walter McGary answered questions after the Hustin' Tigers' 61-53 state-semifinal loss Friday to Liberty Tech in the Murphy Center.
But finally, as the three headed back to the locker room, Suttles couldn't hold the tears back any longer.
McGary and Griffin each put an arm around him, with the head coach telling him "to hold his head high."
"You've proven a lot of people wrong this year," McGary told the players. "You were a final-four team. I couldn't be more proud of you guys."
Friday's game - much like Howard's season - was one of twists and turns. For the most part the Tigers outplayed Liberty, the favorite to win the AA title. Foul trouble was their undoing, as Griffin fouled out with 1:44 remaining in the third quarter and Suttles played most of the fourth quarter with foul fouls. Keante Cameron and Jarvis Ray also finished with four.
"To be honest, I thought a lot of the calls were bad calls," said Griffin, also a senior. "When I went out, I hoped that the other guys would pick me up and help us pull through."
The Crusaders, who had relied heavily on 5-foot-9 point guard and Mr. Basketball finalist Kendall Anthony for most of the game, started to work the ball into the post with Griffin out and Suttles helpless.
"It's hard," Griffin said of being out in the fourth quarter. "Me and Demontay are a big part of our offense. A lot of passes go to us; the game goes through us.
"I just felt I let my team down."
Howard led 49-48 after a Suttles free throw with 3:42 remaining, but Liberty scored seven in a row and the Hustlin' Tigers could manage only a four-point play by Jarvis Ray in the final minute.
"People counted us out from the start," McGary said. "This group poured their heart out. I can't be more proud of this team."
And on his way back to the locker room, Suttles let that heart show again.