Soon after the Brainerd boys' basketball team pulled away for a win Friday night that secured the District 6-AA regular-season title, veteran coach Levar Brown sent a clear message to the Panthers.
"The fight has just begun," Brown told his team after they battled to pull out the victory in a 61-59 overtime thriller at Tyner, which had not lost at home all season.
Even 20 missed free throws didn't stop a motivated group that has been led by strong defense down the stretch of the season. Junior slasher LaDerron Freeman, who had 20 points and 13 rebounds, spoke highly of his teammates, calling them "special" after the Panthers earned their 10th straight district win.
"They worked hard the entire night and have all season to get better," Freeman said. "They came in and made some huge plays off the bench. Caronte (McKibbens) had a big steal for us late, Jante (Williams) hit some big shots and Cameron Evans had a huge dunk. It was our whole team who helped make this happen."
With more to lose than the Rams, the visitors held tough despite letting a nine-point fourth-quarter lead slip away.
Jante Williams scored 12 points and Trey Owten had a highlight-reel block off the backboard for Brainerd (15-9, 11-3). which lost earlier this season to Tyner (18-6, 11-3) in the Times Free Press Best of Preps tournament. The Panthers, however, beat the rival Rams in the district matchups that factored toward the postseason, also winning 62-57 last month.
"For a lot of my guys, this is the first time they have been challenged this much," Brown said. "It took a lot of resilience to come out with a huge win like this. My hats go off to them because Tyner is a great team with a great young coach."
The Rams' 13-game home winning streak is over, but they also have an automatic berth for the region tournament because they will be seeded second going into the district tournament that starts next Saturday at Red Bank.
Tyner standout guard Amon Grace helped his team claw back by scoring 16 of his game-high 21 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. Kobe Smith added 18 points for the Rams, while Solomon Bridgeman posted 10 points and nine rebounds.
Freeman and Co. celebrated at center court after winning a regular-season title that seemed improbable after a 1-3 district start, but they knew the party would have to be short.
"We have to get back to practice," Freeman said. "and work harder than ever for the postseason run ahead we want to make."
Contact Patrick MacCoon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.