Brainerd boys' basketball coach Levar Brown knows there are a lot of things that can't be controlled during a game. But one thing he has injected into his team's DNA is that to win, especially in the postseason, players have to bring defensive intensity.
That philosophy was on full display Thursday night in the Panthers' 60-49 win over rival Howard in the Region 3-AA championship game played at Signal Mountain Middle/High School. Brainerd used its athletic ability and length to force 23 turnovers and hold the Hustlin' Tigers to 26 points in the first three quarters.
"We preach to the kids all year long that only one thing travels in basketball, and that's defense," Brown said. "We're not always going to shoot the ball well or make the right play offensively, but we can always play some defense."
Brainerd's defensive pressure was relentless, pressing full-court and trapping the ball in the half-court. Howard (24-8) spent most of the game under duress on the offensive end. Even when the Panthers (19-10) didn't force a turnover, they limited quality shots and challenged every attempt.
While their defensive energy was evident from the outset, it took them a little while to get going offensively. The Panthers turned the ball over on each of their first five possessions, and Howard led 9-7 at the end of a sloppy first quarter for both teams.
The District 6-AA regular-season champs flipped a switch in the second quarter, however. After another basket by Howard, Brainerd rattled off 12 consecutive points to take an eight-point lead, one they wouldn't relinquish.
Tournament MVP Kevin Halfacre Jr. dominated the first half offensively, when he scored 12 of his game-high 18 points for the Panthers. After Howard pulled to within a point late in the half, the junior scored five of his team's final seven points for a 26-18 lead heading into the locker room.
"We just felt like we needed payback from the first time we played them," Halfacre said of a 21-point loss in November. "What we did tonight was all about practice and focus."
Brainerd outscored the Tigers 17-8 in the third quarter to extend the lead to 17 points. Howard clawed back to within 12, but a 3-pointer from Cameron Evans, who chipped in 11 for the Panthers, midway through the period and an 8-of-8 free-throw performance down the stretch sealed the victory.
Calvin James, with 11 points, was the only Tiger to score in double figures.
The win means Brainerd will host York Institute (21-7) on Monday in the sectional round, while Howard will travel to Watertown (21-12).
"I've never played in a sub-state game," Halfacre said with a huge smile. "Especially getting to play at home, it feels great."
Added Brown: "That's all we've been preaching, that we want to stay at home. I love it. We don't have any money for a bus anyway."
Contact Kevin Llewallyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.