LOUDON, Tenn. — It will be an all-Chattanooga affair to settle the 2019 Region 3-AA boys' basketball championship.
Brainerd rallied from a double-digit second-half deficit to upset second-ranked Sweetwater 70-65, snapping the Wildcats' 14-game winning streak in the first of two semifinals Tuesday evening at Loudon High School. Howard followed with a slight upset of its own, knocking off Tyner 63-51 after having lost to the Rams twice earlier in the season, including in last week's district tournament.
That sets up a third meeting between rivals Brainerd and Howard, this time to decide the region championship and home-court advantage for next Monday's state sectional round. Because the two finalists are from Chattanooga, the region title game will be moved to Signal Mountain on Thursday at 7 p.m.
"We've felt like we've been overlooked, like nobody expected much out of this team all season, and they played like they had something to prove," first-year Howard coach James Talley said. "It will be a dogfight Thursday. They know us and we know them, so it will just be a matter of who wants it the most."
' Brainerd 70, Sweetwater 65: The Panthers trailed for all but one minute of the first half and by 12 with 5:09 left in the third quarter before cutting the deficit in half with 1:35 to go in the period.
Brainerd (18-10) still trailed by nine to begin the fourth quarter but had cut it to three less than two minutes of game time later.
"When I looked up and saw it was 51-46, I said, 'Oh, we've got this now,'" said Panthers junior point guard Kevin Halfacre Jr., who scored 11 of his team-high 17 points in the fourth. "We just had to keep turning up the pressure a few notches, and that's what we did.
"The clock was at 11:59 for a while, but it never struck midnight on us. We didn't want our seniors to go home sad after a loss and we knew our whole season was on the line, so we had to get it done."
The Wildcats pulled back ahead by seven midway through the fourth, but Halfacre's driving layup allowed Brainerd to set up its full-court press, which kick-started a 9-0 spurt that put the Panthers ahead 63-61.
Sweetwater (28-3) got within one but never led again as Brainerd ended the game on a 16-4 run that included making five of six free throws in the final 30 seconds to put the game away.
"If nothing else, my team showed they've got a lot of heart," said Panthers coach Levar Brown, whose team outscored the Wildcats 30-16 in the fourth quarter. "We won this game on heart and defensive intensity.
"During the timeout, when we were down by 12, I reminded our guys about the game at Howard when we came back from 15 down to win. I can't say I wasn't ready to panic, but these kids never did. They settled down and started to play great defense and make the easy shots that we had been missing. That was the difference."
* Howard 63, Tyner 51: After a back-and-forth first half, the Hustlin' Tigers (24-7) surged ahead by two at halftime, then extended their lead to nine by the midway point of the third quarter.
Howard answered each time Tyner tried to make a run and held the Rams (21-7) scoreless for more than four minutes in the fourth, putting the game away by hitting 11 of 14 free throws in the final quarter. Calvin James and Dewayne Lowry each scored 15 points to lead Howard, which split its two regular-season meetings with Brainerd (losing by one and winning by 21).
"I think our kids fed off the energy of our fans tonight," Talley said. "We brought a couple of busloads of students and fans and had more than they did, and that helped get our guys going.
"The way we played in the second half, when they were trying to make a run at us, comes from good senior leadership. We've got five seniors who have never been this far, but they rose up to the challenge and got it done."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis