Trailing by 15 points late in the third quarter and seemingly out of hope Friday night, Brainerd's boys' basketball team turned the fourth quarter into a microcosm of its season to this point.
Instead of accepting their fate, the Panthers turned up the defensive pressure and rallied for a thrilling 78-77 District 6-AA win over rival Howard inside a packed Henry Bowles Gymnasium.
The Panthers began this calendar year with a losing record and appeared destined for a forgettable season. They have since reeled off six straight wins — five in the league, including gutsy victories over Tyner, Signal Mountain and Howard in the past six days — to bring themselves right back into the thick of the race for the top seed for the district tournament.
"We reached a point where we had to have a heart-to-heart as a team and get some issues out in the open," Brainerd coach Levar Brown said. "Now the kids are playing for each other, and instead of getting down on themselves, they're picking each other up and finding a way to win against tough teams.
"We knew the energy would be high for this game, but in the first three quarters we didn't really match that energy. We sure did in the fourth, though."
Howard (17-4, 8-2) had led since the 6:47 mark of the first quarter and held a double-digit advantage for much of the first three, including a 54-39 lead with 3:02 remaining in the third.
But Brainerd (13-8, 6-3) ended that period on a 9-3 run, then continued to carry the momentum in the final quarter. With help from the Hustlin' Tigers' struggles at the free-throw line — they made just 10 of 19 fourth-quarter attempts — Brainerd had closed to within four midway through the period.
And after Hustlin' Tigers leading scorer DeWayne Lawry, who finished with 17 points, fouled out with just more than three minutes remaining, Howard managed to hit just two field goals the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, the Panthers' Kevin Halfacre and Malik Hymon combined for 20 points in the fourth quarter alone, each scoring 10 of his 19 total in the final period, including Halfacre's two free throws with 11 seconds remaining to put Brainerd ahead by one.
From there, Howard missed a shot in the lane and Brainerd's LaDerron Freeman grabbed the rebound and ran out the clock to complete the improbable comeback and avenge a 21-point home loss to Howard earlier this season.
"The difference from the start of the year to now has been our focus," Halfacre said. "We're playing together more as a team now, too. When I stepped to the line, I knew my teammates needed me to come through for us, so I just blocked everything else out and concentrated.
"Going into the fourth, we knew we had to pick up the pace, and once things started going our way, we just tried to keep the momentum going our way. We're playing with a lot more confidence now. We never really felt like we were out of it, no matter what the score was. We knew we still had time."