The Central boys' basketball players barely had time to celebrate their clinching of the program's first region berth since 2005 before they had to play another game in the District 6-AA high school tournament. And if there was any lingering feelings of accomplishment Saturday afternoon at Hixson, top-seeded Howard squashed them quickly.
Behind a big first half from center Brandon Walters, the Hustlin' Tigers defeated the Purple Pounders 71-44 in a semifinal.
Howard (22-5), coming off a less dramatic victory over Red Bank on Friday than Central's road win over East Hamilton, advances to Tuesday's 7:45 p.m. championship game against Brainerd, which edged Tyner 66-63 in the late semifinal. Central (14-10) will face Tyner in a consolation game Monday night at 7:45.
The girls' consolation game with Tyner against Brainerd is set for Monday and the title game matching East Hamilton and Howard is Tuesday. Both are set for 6 p.m.
East Hamilton's Lady Hurricanes beat Tyner 54-42 before Howard's girls topped Brainerd 55-49.
Howard boys' coach Walter McGary said playing hard on defense and creating an up-tempo game were his main points of emphasis from the start, and the Tigers held the Pounders to six points in the first quarter and nine in the second.
As for establishing a quick pace, the first half wasn't filled with Howard guards making layup after layup. Instead, Walters had six field goals in the first quarter, one becoming a three-point play, and three baskets in the second.
Walters scored 21 of his 25 points in the first half, which ended with the Tigers in control 34-15.
"Brandon's in much better shape than he was last year," McGary said. "A lot of times he's able to be the 3 man on our break. He's been very active from one end to the other. That's been a tremendous asset for our group."
Emotional draining aside, the Pounders simply had a matchup problem with the 6-foot-8 Walters.
"I didn't have any answer for that," Central coach Rick Rogers said. "He's so big. We can't reach for the sky like he can. They played better than any time I've seen this year."
McGary did say that was as good a first half as his team has played all season, but the coach is always looking for more.
"We haven't played a complete ballgame yet, first half and second half," McGary said. "Once we play a complete game, it's going to be frightening. I hope we have that left in us this season."
With his team trailing 45-20, Rogers made wholesale substitutions midway through the third quarter and played reserves the rest of the way. He said it not only gave some of his younger players some postseason experience but also helped rest the starters' legs for Monday's game.
Howard guard Shalique Cameron took advantage of Central's defensive effort to surround Walters and made four 3-pointers on the way to scoring 14 points in the first three quarters. Rashad Brummitt's 12 points came in the second half.
David Holley's and Brian Billingsley's nine points were high for the Pounders. Billingsley had two in the third quarter and seven in the fourth.