As the Brainerd boys' basketball team went through its final preparation for tonight's home sectional game against York Institute, the players' body language appeared calm.
The Panthers got in one final video study session followed by a short practice Sunday evening as they tuned up for a one-game shot to advance to the Class AA state tournament for the fourth time in five years.
The group is making the most of the second chance it earned. Brainerd was originally given a two-year ban from the postseason as punishment for a brawl against Austin East last January, and the Panthers did sit out the 2018 postseason. But Brainerd and Austin East attended a sportsmanship clinic together, and that earned both teams a reprieve from some of the TSSAA sanctions, opening the door to be eligible for this year's state tournament.
"The thing I am most proud of with this group is that they went through summer workouts and came into this school year anticipating just playing a regular season," said Levar Brown, who's in his sixth year as coach of the Panthers. "I am proud of the way they stuck out a tough time."
After buying into the motto "We Over Me," a return to Middle Tennessee State University's Murphy Center is just a solid 32 minutes away if the Panthers (19-10) can beat the Dragons (21-7) in tonight's sectional at 7.
Howard (24-8) also has a chance to advance to the state tournament but must travel for its sectional matchup with Watertown (21-12), which tips off at 8 p.m. EST.
"We are down to the last 16 teams in our classification," Brown said. "York Institute is very big, and we have not really seen a team with their size. If we can go out and play our game and do the little things right, we can find success."
Junior point guard Kevin Halfacre Jr. has been a pivotal force as the Panthers have won 14 of their past 16 games. The recent Region 3-AA tournament MVP was a part of the program's third straight trip to the AA state tournament as a freshman, learning under former all-state teammate Kentrell Evans in 2017.
With a great respect for his high school's basketball history, which includes state championships in 1984, 1988 and 1992 plus runner-up finishes in 1995, 1997 and 2016, Halfacre and his teammates are not shy to chase the ultimate prize.
"We had to get in the gym every day we could," Halfacre said. "When we were in there working out or on the court, it was important to not play around. Brainerd has always been a big-time basketball school. It would mean a lot for our team to make it to Murfreesboro. Our goal has always been to get a gold ball."
Halfacre and fellow three-year standout LaDerron Freeman — each has averaged more than 15 points per game this season — have made the Panthers capable of quick scoring bursts, but the Panthers' defense has been formidable, too. Senior Trey Owten has been a menace on that end of the court with big shot deflections, charges drawn and steals. Cameron Evans and Remeo Hubbard have also been key stoppers for the Panthers, who forced 23 turnovers to top Howard for the region title.
With a .757 winning percentage (128-41 record) since he took over at Brainerd, Brown and Co. are ready to live in a moment they did not believe would be possible at first.
"We are trying to uphold the standard of Brainerd basketball that was set over 40 years ago," Brown said. "We have been blessed with some great kids. It's impressive they have made it to the sectionals every year since 2014, except for last season when we were ranked No. 2 in the state.
"Our kids never gave up."