Brainerd, Chattanooga Prep aim for deep runs at TSSAA BlueCross Basketball State Championships

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Brainerd's Dennis Lewis Jr. leads the state title hopefuls in points per game as well providing senior leadership for coach Levar Brown's team.

Levar Brown knows exactly what to expect when it comes to trips to Murfreesboro for the TSSAA boys' basketball state tournament.

Brown's Brainerd Panthers are making their sixth appearance under his watch and 19th overall for the illustrious program, which has captured three gold balls as well as three runner-up silver trophies.

Since the start of the new calendar year, the "1020 Boyz" have been on fire. The Panthers have won 16 of their last 17 games, including nine straight as they head into the Class 2A state tournament.

"The tradition for Brainerd basketball is definitely set in stone," said Brown, who has led the program since 2013. "The expectation for us is to be here in Murfreesboro every year at the state tournament. To continue on our strong tradition is a blessing. This team made a promise to themselves they would get back this March. We want to bring a ball back home to Chattanooga. That's been our focus all year."

Brainerd (24-7) will take on Fairview (26-6) in the BlueCross Basketball State Championships quarterfinals at 12:30 ET on Thursday from Middle Tennessee University's Murphy Center.

The Panthers are led by seniors Dennis Lewis Jr., Donivon Thomas, Joshua Hood, Je'Mari Baylor and Boo Carter, while junior Kendrick Jones has provided a spark with his clutch 3-point shooting.

Lewis Jr. leads the team with close to 20 points per game. Thomas -- a 6-foot-6 Toledo football signee -- averages a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds along with three blocks per game. Carter averages 13 points, 6.8 rebounds, five assists and five steals per game in his first season with Brainerd after transferring from Chattanooga Christian.

"I just shared a picture on social media this week of Dennis after he missed the game-winning shot last year in our state quarterfinal loss," Brown said. "He was laying on the floor. Most people felt like he got fouled, but he felt like he should have made the shot. Dennis has been on a mission to get us back and take it all the way. He and Donivon Thomas both."

Meanwhile, Chattanooga Prep (28-8) will soak in its first trip to the state tournament as the second-year program with no junior or senior class will take on Fayetteville (19-8) at 2:15 ET Wednesday in the Class A quarterfinals.

The youthful Sentinels have full belief in their ability to make a run at bringing a gold or silver ball back to Chattanooga after playing a tough schedule this season.

Freshman Derrick Roberson is one of the top players in Class A already, averaging nearly 15 points per game with over 80 3-point makes this season while averaging 1.1 blocks per game. Chatt Prep is also led by sophomores Eli Gaines (12 points, 3.3 assists and two steals per game), Ta'Suade Williams (9.2 points, two assists, 1.7 steals) along with freshmen Joel Bullis (eight points, five rebounds) and De'Andre Turnbow (2.2 assists, 1.5 steals).

"I want my guys to be acclimated to playing on the biggest stages in high school basketball," Chatt Prep head coach Christoffer Collins said. "We are up here now and have the mindset of winning -- we don't just want to be up here. We want to win it all.

"This is a very special opportunity for us. None of it would be possible without all the hard work from our young men. We have to stay the course because this is a very pivotal moment for our basketball program. We have to continue to push forward and find ways to get better."

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