Unranked throughout the regular season but undeterred in the postseason, Howard's basketball team is back in the state tournament for a fourth time in five years.
The Hustlin' Tigers used a furious fourth quarter Monday to claim a 65-47 Class AA sectional victory over Cannon County at Henry Bowles Gymnasium and again are among eight teams that will vie for a state championship next week.
Howard (23-6) appeared to be on cruise control and headed to Murfreesboro before Cannon County rallied from a 17-point third-quarter deficit to pull within three with just over five minutes remaining in the game.
The Lions' T.J. Mitchell was called for an intentional foul on Howard's 6-foot-8 sophomore Brandon Walters, whose layup was Howard's first field goal in more than seven minutes. The Hustlin' Tigers scored again on the ensuing possession and reeled off 15 consecutive points to put the game away. Howard ended the game on a 25-9 scoring run, with five players accounting for those points.
"That's the great thing about this team. They're so unselfish," Howard coach Walter McGary said. "They don't care who scores, so long as the team scores. We don't have any superstars but we're pretty balanced.
"This is the first group I've had, as a high school or middle school coach, that I can say truly has no jealousy on it, and that's what we'll need to win in Murfreesboro."
The boys' tournament will be held March 16-19 at Middle Tennessee State University. The TSSAA will hold a blind draw this weekend.
Howard trailed for just 24 seconds of game time, and that first-quarter deficit was short-lived thanks to Keante Cameron's perimeter shooting. With the Lions' 2-3 defense packed in to deny Howard post Barry Griffin from getting the ball, Cameron made his first three 3-point attempts to loosen the zone.
Howard closed the first quarter on a 12-3 run to take a 10-point lead and maintained that advantage at halftime.
Justin Davenport scored 13 of Cannon County's 17 points to pull his team within three with 5:27 remaining, but the Lions went more than four minutes without a field goal from that point.
HOWARD 65, CANNON COUNTY 47
Cannon County 12 8 13 14 - 47
Howard 22 8 10 25 - 65
Cannon County (47) - Justin Davenport 23, Ruehlen, Turney, Jones 3, Mitchell 7, A. Davenport, Tobin, Cripps 5, Nave 9, Melton, Higgins, Simons, Duggin, Walkup, Bryson.
Howard (65) - Griffin 9, Suttle 5, Jarvis Ray 11, Keante Cameron 18, Martin 4, Anthony Smith 10, Walters 6, Roshell, S. Cameron, McCauley, Webster 2, Anto. Smith.
3-point goals: Cannon 4 (Davenport 3, Jones); Howard 4 (Cameron 4). Records: Howard 23-6; Cannon County 22-15.
"I really wasn't nervous when they made their run," said Cameron, who finished with 18 points. "We got lazy on defense, but we had confidence if we just started working hard again we could get some turnovers and get the win."
Howard, which has won 14 of its last 15 games, made 11 straight free throws in the fourth quarter and 13 of 16 for the game.
"I've been preaching free throws all year and how they can make the difference in the big games," McGary said. "There was a time earlier this year when free throws cost us, but we've been doing a much better job lately of closing out games at the line.
"When they made their run, we just had to calm down and get our heads back in the game and do what got us in the lead in the first place. From the start of the game we had talked about being patient and putting the ball in the hands of the open man. Once we started making the extra pass to find the open man, we started to get control back."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.