ENGLEWOOD, Tenn. — Howard coach Walter McGary didn’t exhale until the final buzzer sounded in Thursday’s region championship game.
That didn’t come until McMinn Central missed two potential game-winning shots in the final five seconds, either.
“Those are coach killers,” Howard head coach Walter McGary said. “I can’t live through too many of those.”
The Hustlin’ Tigers (26-5), just like Brainerd two days earlier, held a nine-point lead over McMinn Central in the second half, and just like the Panthers’ late lead on Tuesday, it disappeared in a matter of minutes.
“I said ‘Oh no, we’re not going to pull a Brainerd,” McGary said.
They didn’t. Instead, Howard pulled out its third consecutive Region 3-AA title with its 60-59 win over a resilient Chargers squad at McMinn County High School.
With the win, the Hustlin’ Tigers move on to host DeKalb County, the Region in Monday’s sectional game, while, following the loss, McMinn Central (28-4) will travel to Livingston Academy for its sub-state match up with the Wildcats.
“I think we proved that we’ve got a lot of heart and a strong will in us,” McMinn Central coach Doug Armstrong said. “We’re disappointed that we didn’t win, but we’re certainly going to dust ourselves off and get ready to play on Monday. We’re certainly going to do that.”
The Chargers (28-4), who trailed by seven entering the final period, scored the first basket of the fourth, and a pair of 3-pointers from Josh Scudder and Tim Webb brought McMinn to within 52-49 with 4:02 to play.
Webb knotted things up at 56-56 following three straight free-throws, and the Chargers pulled to within one with just 12.7 seconds remaining. Howard, which shot just 6 of 11 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter, missed a pair from the stripe on the ensuing possession, McMinn grabbed the rebound and called for a timeout.
McMinn Central’s Max Miller fired a makable 3-pointer in the closing moments, but the shot rimmed out. The Chargers’ came up empty of their frantic attempt at a put back as the buzzer sounded, McGary threw his hands up and that was that.
“It was a good game,” said Howard’s Brandon Walters, who finished with a game-high 19 points and 16 rebounds. “They came out fighting just like we did, we just fought a little harder. We had to keep pushing; never give up, no matter how much time was on the clock.”
And while Walters only scored five fourth-quarter points, his performance on the glass—especially at the offensive end—made the difference.
With the Tigers’ clinging to a narrow lead in the closing minutes, they suddenly went cold. They couldn’t make shots from deep, from in close or the free-throw line. They actually missed a couple layups during the dry spell.
On almost every miss, though, the 6-8 senior, Walters, was under the rim ready to collect the offensive board.
“It’s fantastic to have a safety net like him,” McGary said.
The Tigers, who were in front 35-30 at the break, led for most of the first half, and senior Xavier Harris was—for the most part—responsible for his team’s advantage.
Harris, playing alongside Walters in the post, scored 13 of his 15 points in the first two quarters.
“He played like a monster,” McGary said. “I knew he could do that and I’ve been on him all year to play that way. I’m glad he decided to do it in this game.”
Chris Walton also finished in double-figures for Howard with 10 points, despite battling foul trouble for much of the night, Antonio Smith contributed seven and Rashad Brummitt added five.
“All year long I’ve been telling them let’s get to the sub-state and play at home,” McGary said. “Your last hooray at home; there’s nothing like that feeling. That’s very important.”