Updated at 8:18 p.m. on Friday, March 15, 2019, with more information and photos.
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Despite a mountain of obstacles the Brainerd boys' basketball team had overcome just to reach the state tournament, there was one towering hurdle it could not overcome in Friday afternoon's Class AA semifinals at Middle Tennessee State University.
Technically, there were two towering hurdles — Wooddale 6-foot-8 senior center Chandler Lawson and his 6-7 younger brother Jonathan — the Panthers could not overcome.
The brothers Chandler dominated the paint in such a way that they led the Cardinals to a 76-65 win to advance to Saturday's state championship game, where they will face perennial powerhouse Knoxville Fulton at 2 p.m. EDT.
"We knew it was going to be a dogfight with those two guys they've got down low," Panthers coach Levar Brown said. "We hadn't seen size like that, or as skilled as that, this season, so we knew it would be tough going in."
Chandler Lawson, an Oregon signee, finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots, and his younger brother narrowly missed a triple-double, adding 12 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and three blocks. All five Cardinals starters scored in double figures.
With the Lawsons and 6-6 sophomore Coland Carr patrolling the interior, the Panthers (23-11) never were able to get off an uncontested shot from inside the 3-point arc. Needing to rely on its outside shooters to keep the game close, Brainerd also struggled there, which prevented its defense from utilizing the full-court press that had helped the undersized team advance to the state's final four.
The Panthers, who have no players on the roster taller than 6-4, made just 27 percent of their first-half field-goal tries, including three of 16 3-point attempts.
"We can't press if we don't make shots, and that took us out of what we wanted to do," Brown said. "I thought we played a little intimidated in the first half, especially that first quarter, and (Wooddale) was knocking down their shots.
"But I'm extremely proud of our effort. We battled right to the very end, and this was a good experience for a team with several guys coming back next season."
Wooddale, which is making its state tournament debut, closed out the first quarter with a 10-0 run to take command, and Brainerd never got closer than four the rest of the way. A 17-2 run to end the second quarter put the game away, and after the Cardinals (32-4) led by as many as 27 points in the second half, the Panthers used a 17-9 fourth-quarter rally to get within the final margin.
The Panthers, who were making their fourth state tournament appearance in five years and trying to get back to the title game for the first time since 2016, were led by junior point guard Kevin Halfacre's game-high 20 points.
"We learned that we have to play hard the whole game," Halfacre said. "This was a great season. but I'm making a promise to my brothers on this team who are coming back that we will get back here next year and there will be a different outcome."