The heartbeat of the Brainerd boys' basketball program continues to grow louder as the postseason nears.
After all, Levar Brown-led groups have shown poise down the stretch with a pair of state-tournament runs and a finals appearance not too long ago.
Hitting on their No. 1 key to success, the Panthers forced 23 turnovers in a 53-40 home victory over East Ridge for their seventh consecutive District 6-AA victory Tuesday night.
"We are not athletically skilled enough to score a lot of points and to beat you with pure shooting," Brown said. "We have to play defense and cause a lot of turnovers to get extra possessions."
Since losing to Red Bank on Jan. 10, Brainerd has bounced back to win eight of its last nine contests. A team that returned only two players from last season has begun to jell together.
The red-hot stretch has catapulted the Panthers up the district standings to the second spot with a chance to take the regular-season district crown if they can win at Central on Thursday and knock off first-place Tyner on Friday night.
Senior guard Trey Owten has done his fair share in the major turnaround, and he provided in big ways to top the Pioneers. The 6-foot-3 shutdown defender stole five passes and stuffed the stat sheet with nine points, seven rebounds and three assists.
While once sitting at 1-3 in the district standings, Brainerd (13-9, 9-3) never gave up hope.
"Everybody said we were going to get beat," said Owten, whose rousing dunk on senior night gave his team a 14-point lead midway through the third quarter. "Our coaches helped us every step of the way to put it all together. Once we put our heart into it, we started to play stronger and together."
East Ridge (15-11, 8-5) was swept by Brainerd this regular season.
The Panthers scored 18 of their 26 first-half points in the second quarter in which Cameron Evans provided a spark with six points. Senior Jonte Williams banked home one of the team's three 3-pointers in the quarter as Brainerd took a 26-17 lead into halftime.
After the Pioneers cut the deficit to eight in the fourth quarter, LaDerron Freeman helped close out the win with a quick step and tough drives to the hoop.
Junior Malik Hymon led all scorers with 13 points, while Freeman finished with six of his dozen in the fourth quarter.
With a chance to claim what once was considered a highly unlikely regular-season championship, Brainerd knows where to hang its hat.
"We have to capitalize on our defensive pressure," Owten said. "We want to bring a good attitude to the court and hopefully make a memorable postseason run."
"We feel good about how we are playing going into the postseason," Brown said. "We were a team that people were sleeping on at the start and deservedly so. But you don't want to peak too soon."
Contact Patrick MacCoon at firstname.lastname@example.org.