The small trophy in his hands was recognition of how well he had played throughout the District 6-AA basketball tournament. But as he stood on the court and waited, the piece of hardware Brainerd junior Kentrell Evans really wanted to hold close was the gold plaque signifying he and his team had claimed the District 6-AA tournament championship.
After a pair of near misses earlier this season the Panthers finally ended a four-game losing streak to rival Central with a 69-62 win in Tuesday's district title matchup.
"This means a lot because I've been with these coaches for three years trying to help build toward this," said Evans, who scored 15 points, including seven in the fourth quarter by making five of six free throws down the stretch.
Both teams showed flashes of why they're once again contenders to return to the state tournament, where each came up short last season. After a back-and-forth opening quarter, Brainerd pulled ahead for good midway through the second thanks to a 12-2 run that included three 3-pointers in a span of just over three minutes, two coming from Michael Hampton less than a minute apart. Those were the only 3-pointers the Panthers made for the game.
"Those 3s they made in the second quarter killed us," Central coach Rick Rogers said. "That changed the momentum of the game and really put us back on our heels. We were playing catch-up from then on.
"I thought they played the whole game with a lot more energy and want-to than we did. We've got to stop having those lulls where we just stop scoring. That's happened way too much lately."
Central, which won 16 of its first 17 games this season, has lost four of its last five going into this weekend's region tournament, where one more loss before the finals would end the season.
Meanwhile the Panthers are on a nine-game win streak, avenging their last loss, by three in mid-January to Central. Jessie Walker led Brainerd (20-4) with 17 points, while Dajuonta Ross had 14 and Hampton added 10.
The Pounders (17-5) pulled within three on Terron Hayes' fourth 3-pointer of the night with 1:32 remaining, and again on a dunk by Ryan Montgomery 20 seconds later, but the Panthers broke Central's press for an easy layup and followed a Pounders miss with another easy bucket to put the game away.
"I did absolutely nothing," said Brainerd coach Levar Brown. "These kids really wanted this one, and I didn't even have to give a pregame speech. They've worked too hard to be runners-up, and I think they were just tired of losing to this team, so they went out and got it."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.