MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Boo Carter put his football skills to work on the basketball court Thursday afternoon, helping keep the Brainerd Panthers in the hunt for the TSSAA Class 2A title and the program's fourth gold ball trophy.
The 6-foot, 185-pound junior guard showed the athleticism that has made him one of the state's top college football recruits when he delivered a game-changing defensive play late in the Panthers' 63-60 quarterfinal victory over Fairview in the BlueCross Basketball State Championships at Middle Tennessee State University.
With Brainerd's 21-point fourth-quarter lead nearly erased, Carter read the Yellow Jackets' play perfectly as he crashed the sideline to leap over a Fairview player for his fifth and final steal with 18 seconds left. He quickly got the ball upcourt to senior leader Dennis Lewis Jr., whose two free throws provided a 63-57 lead with 11 seconds on the clock.
“When I was in middle school, I played with these guys and we won a championship together. I felt like if we regrouped together in high school, we could win state together,” said Carter, who has averaged five steals and nearly seven assists per game for Brainerd after transferring from Chattanooga Christian School in early November.
“My position on the court is similar to me playing safety in football. That final steal I had was easy for me to read. When I saw him look deep to pass, I knew I had to get to that spot and get up there to shut it down.”
Carter also impressed with 10 assists, helping propel four of his teammates to double figures in points.
For Lewis, it was a moment of major redemption at the Murphy Center, where he scored only three points in last year’s one-point quarterfinal loss to Power Center. He bounced back in a big way as he had a team-high 16 points and shot 4-of-6 from 3-point range.
“After last year’s loss at this stage, I was like, I need to get back there and win that game,” said Lewis, who has averaged more than 18 points per game to pace the Panthers this season. “Being the scoring leader on our team, I have to show up every game. I knew the only way for us to win today was for me to show up.”
Brainerd (25-7) has now won 17 of its past 18 games and advances to Friday's semifinals, where the Panthers will take on Alcoa (28-8) — a 65-62 winner over Pearl-Cohn earlier Thursday — at 5:30 p.m. Eastern. Douglass (27-8) and Giles County (27-8) will meet in the second semifinal immediately after, with the title game Saturday night.
The Panthers held off a furious comeback by Fairview (26-7), which trailed 55-34 after Lewis spun around a defender to hit a high-level layup with 4:30 left in the fourth quarter.
Carter picked up his final assist on an alley-oop lob to 6-foot-6 senior Donivon Thomas for a 57-38 lead with 3:14 remaining. Thomas finished with 11 points, three dunks and two blocked shots.
Fairview cut its deficit all the way down to three twice in the final minute as Nathan Dillingham caught fire, hitting four of his seven 3-pointers in the final 2:01 of regulation.
However, Carter’s heads-up defensive play and the touch Lewis showed at the foul line helped Brainerd seal the deal — but not without reminding coach Levar Brown why he's glad he doesn't have any hair to pull in tense moments.
“Our guys are really resilient and mentally tough. They have been for the last 18 games or so,” Brown said. “I shave my head for a reason. On this stage, the game is never over until its over. It does get stressful, but these guys have really found a way to battle through situations like these.”
Panther guard JT Hood was exceptional from the jump as the left-handed shooter scored Brainerd’s first six points. Hood also hit 3 from the left corner and had a steal and a score soon after to build a 42-27 lead in the third quarter, and he finished with 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting to go with five rebounds and three steals.
Fellow senior Quintus Broadnax added 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting and grabbed five rebounds. The Panthers went up 48-31 on his layup off a no-look pass by Carter over his shoulder.
Fairview's Dillingham had 27 points, but the only other scorer in double figures for the Jackets was Jonathan Sawyer with 10. Jacob Neal had 10 rebounds as Fairview finished with a 34-27 advantage overall.
Brainerd remains the most recent Chattanooga public school to reach a state final in boys' basketball, with the Panthers finishing as 2A runners-up in 2016. They were also second in AAA in 1997 and 1995, having won titles in 1992, 1988 and 1984.
Now they're a win away from another title shot, along with first-time state tourney participant Chattanooga Prep (29-8), a second-year varsity squad with no upperclassmen that will face Hampton (27-8) in a Class 1A semifinal at 2:15 p.m. Friday at the Murphy Center.
“We treat Chatt Prep like our little brothers,” Carter said. “We watched them here yesterday and came to support them. They also look up to us like their big brothers. I feel like us and Chatt Prep should win it all.”
Contact Patrick MacCoon at email@example.com.