Central girls' basketball coach Rick May belabored the point that his team is still trying to learn how to win games. And his Lady Purple Pounders found a way, although likely not the way he would've desired.
Central never trailed Brainerd in their District 6-AA high school game Tuesday, but the Lady Pounders couldn't have won by a more narrow margin than the 49-48 final score.
Central (10-5, 6-1) and Brainerd (9-6, 5-2) entered the game tied for second place in the league standings behind Hixson, which improved Tuesday to 6-0 by beating East Ridge. The Lady Pounders' district loss was in double overtime to the Lady Wildcats, whom they're scheduled to play again Jan. 28 at Hixson. The Lady Panthers have now lost twice to Central but have yet to play Hixson.
"We're going to highlight those games," Brainerd coach Tyrus Ward said. "We're going to have to put our best foot forward when we play Hixson."
Central's largest lead was 43-30, the score after three quarters. Ward said switching to more of a pressing man-to-man defense helped spark his team's 11-0 run to start the fourth but added that it was more about the players' efforts than strategy.
"If we had brought that kind of intensity the first three quarters," Ward said, "I believe the outcome would've been a little different."
The key sequence in the game came with the Lady Pounders leading 47-43 with less than a minute to play. The Lady Panthers forced a turnover at midcourt but failed to convert a layup around the half-minute mark. Central rebounded and pushed the ball up the floor, where Shamiyah Jones found Sandrea Sylman cutting to the basket for a layup and a six-point lead.
Naciea Ashley's putback of a missed 3-point shot brought it back to a four-point game and the Lady Panthers called time out with 3.8 seconds remaining. Afterward they deflected the inbound pass, which landed in Jamee Ward's hands, but her 3 at the buzzer proved to be inconsequential.
"We're still trying to learn how to play with a lead," May said. "This is twice we've had leads like 10 or 12 points in the fourth quarter and we played hurry-up. Tonight we did enough to hold on.
"We want to press and trap and make the game helter-skelter. Our half-court offense is lacking a little bit. We're trained to be a transition team. It's hard to hold back a race horse sometimes."
Sylman led Central with 14 points. Madison Rogers came off the bench and added 13, including three 3-pointers. Jones contributed 10 points.
Jamee Ward scored Brainerd's last two points of the first quarter, first two of the third and all 11 in between. The coach's sister ended up with 33.
"Brainerd has improved a whole lot," said May, whose team won by 14 points in the first meeting. "Kudos to Jamee Ward. She's a great player. She was our whole defensive focus tonight, and she, by herself, almost won the game there."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.