With just under three minutes remaining and his team clinging to a narrow two-point lead, Brainerd basketball coach Levar Brown had a simple message for the Panthers during a timeout.
"Go get what you deserve," Brown said in the huddle as his players leaned in to hear their coach's message over the swirl of noise inside a packed High-Jackson Gym.
Brown made sure he locked eyes with Laderron Freeman to emphasize that he was counting on the 6-foot-3 junior post to step up.
Freeman answered by making Brainerd's final two field goals — both in the paint — to help hold off stubborn York Institute 49-46 in Monday night's Class AA sectional. The win advances Brainerd, which began the season with five straight losses, back to the state tournament for the fourth time in the past five seasons.
The Panthers were ineligible for last year's state tourney as part of a two-year postseason ban handed down by the TSSAA following a brawl with Austin-East. But after a dual sportsmanship clinic with A-E, along with other off-the-court work, the TSSAA lifted this year's ban from the two teams and both earned their way back to the state tournament with wins on Monday.
"The last year has been extremely tough," Brown said after the game. "I'm so proud of the way our kids stuck together and worked for this. They could have transferred to another school back when we didn't know if we'd get the chance to go to the postseason.
"But they all stayed here and worked to earn this shot, so this is pretty sweet."
Brainerd will find out its opening opponent this afternoon when the TSSAA holds its state tournament draw. The state tourney begins on March 13 at Middle Tennessee State University's Murphy Center.
Monday's game had six ties and seven lead changes, with neither team pulling ahead by more than six at any point. Brainerd ended with a scoring flurry to overcome deficits in three of four quarters.
Xiyeer Lattimore's buzzer-beating 3-pointer was part of a 7-2 run to close out the first quarter and give the Panthers a one-point lead. Brainerd then ended the second quarter with an 8-0 run for a three-point cushion and needed an 11-4 spurt in the final five minutes to claim the win.
"Coach Brown looked at me and let me know my team needed me," said Freeman, who led all scorers with 17 points. "I knew the ball was coming to me, so I had to make it count. I had to make plays for my team.
"We worked hard to get to this, and that was a very tough team who fought all night and gave us everything they have. All of that just makes it mean more for us to get back to state."
Brainerd (20-10) made it tougher on itself down the stretch by making just one of its final nine free throws, prompting Brown to threaten his players that he might have them back on the court practicing free throws once the fans cleared out of the gym.
Since the postseason began, the Panthers have beaten two top-five ranked teams and rival Howard just to reach the sectional round.
"We're a tired team right now," Brown added. "We've beaten the number-two ranked team, the number-four ranked team, and then this team tonight looked more like the University of Tennessee offensive line, they're so big.
"We'll give them tomorrow off to rest, but then we'll be right back at practice to get ready."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis