Two games into this high school basketball season, both 20-point losses, East Ridge looked like anything but a team that would contend for any kind of title. Now six games into the District 6-AA schedule, a contender is exactly what the Pioneers are.
They made the short trip Tuesday to Brainerd and pulled out a 69-66 victory, in turn taking sole possession of second place in the district.
Brainerd (13-6, 4-3) was coming off a big district win Friday over Howard, giving the Hustlin' Tigers their third league loss. Tyner leads the league at 6-0 and visits East Ridge (11-4, 5-1) in a Jan. 27 rematch of a 54-42 Rams win in early December.
"We've got a lot of games to play before we can talk about Tyner again," East Ridge coach Jon Goddard said.
What the Pioneers pulled off Tuesday was nothing short of extraordinary, considering they were down 66-61 after the Panthers' Jerran Besley made two free throws with 1:10 to play.
East Ridge's Aaron Sternes and Greg Besley then sandwiched 3-point goals around two missed free throws by Brainerd. Subsequently the Pioneers' Chris Green converted a steal into a layup, and when the Panthers called time out with 24.6 seconds remaining, they were down three.
East Ridge's Besley came up with a steal from behind after Brainerd inbounded, but the Panthers got the ball back after forcing the Pioneers into a turnover. Eventually Demetrius Kitchens missed a 3-point shot from the right side with a little less than 10 seconds left. Afterward, East Ridge managed to run out the clock.
"This was tournament-type ball," Brainerd coach Robert High said. "I told our kids, 'You played hard. You just made some mistakes down the stretch that hurt you.'"
Goddard said a big key was his team bouncing back from an approximate minute-and-a-half run that turned a four-point East Ridge lead into a four-point deficit. It was capped by Donnell Reynolds making the first of two free throws on an intentional-foul call with 3:55 to go.
"At the beginning of the fourth quarter we kind of lost our composure," Goddard said. "I kept preaching to them, 'There's a lot of time left. Get a basket and play defense. Score and play defense,' and that's kind of what we did. We got a couple of big steals, Greg Besley and Aaron Sternes both hit some big 3s, and we played well down the stretch."
The Pioneers led 15-8 after one quarter, which Goddard said was especially important being the road team, and High said was not surprising.
"That's not uncommon for us," High said. "I can't give you a number, but there have been so many games we've started from behind this year."
East Ridge, which got 18 points from Besley, 14 from Sternes and 10 from Alfonzo Cox, got up by as much as 25-14. But after the Panthers' 9-0 run from there, neither team led by more than six the rest of the way.
Kitchens had two points in the first quarter and Jabari Evans had none, but they led Brainerd with 22 and 19. The Panthers didn't have Evans for the final 1:58, his fifth coming on what High said was not a foul.
"The boy slipped and fell," the coach said.