BY JESSE SMITHEY
MURFREESBORO — Getting to its first state championship game in more than three decades turned out to be a hand-wringing experience Friday for the Alcoa boys’ basketball team.
A turnover here. A missed free-throw there.
All the while, the opponent kept popping in 3s to chip away at the lead.
But when Brainerd star Boo Carter clanked a last-second, 3-point shot from the wing and Alcoa junior Brandon Winton vacuumed up the rebound to secure the win, the Tornadoes and their fan base could finally breathe a sign of relief — and exhaustion.
Junior guard Jahvin Carter scored a game-high 32 points and Winton 14, as Alcoa ousted Brainerd 71-68 in a Class 2A state semifinal at the Murphy Center at Middle Tennessee State.
Alcoa (29-8) led by as many as 12 in the fourth quarter and by 10 with 4 minutes to play. But four turnovers in the final 4 minutes and a 7-for-12 clip at the free-throw line in the fourth quarter left the door open for a comeback by Brainerd (25-8).
Dennis Lewis Jr. (25 points) hit a 3 for Brainerd with 35 seconds left that cut his team’s deficit to 68-65 with 35 seconds left.
After Jahvin Carter’s two free throws for Alcoa with 17 seconds to play pushed the lead to 70-65, Boo Carter — the highly coveted Class of 2024 football star — hit a 3 on Brainerd’s end to cut the Alcoa lead to 70-68 with 10 seconds remaining.
Jahvin Carter made 1 of 2 foul shots on Alcoa’s end, leaving Brainerd hope for overtime. Boo Carter couldn’t connect one last time though.
“We just needed to keep our composure,” said Winton. “I knew we were up the whole game. We had a lead on them the whole game. I knew they were going to keep fighting. They wanted to win, just like we did.
“But I felt like if we just kept our composure and kept doing what we were doing, we’d finish out the game.”
Alcoa, back in the state championship since finishing runner-up in 1992, will attempt to win its third championship in program history. The TSSAA record books show Alcoa having won state in 1959 and 1967. The Tornadoes finished runner-up in 1965, 1982 and 1992.
The Class 2A state championship is set for a 6:30 p.m. Central time tip-off on Saturday against Douglass (28-8), which finished runner-up in its only title-game appearance (2018). Douglass has won its last 17 games and, per its roster this week, will have a height advantage over Alcoa.
Alcoa football standouts Eli Owens (6-2, 230) and Elijah Cannon (6-1, 205) proved invaluable Friday in the post, where the Tornadoes faced a big height differential against Brainerd’s 6-6 athletic center Donivon Thomas.
Thomas, a Toledo football signee, blocked four shots, grabbed five boards and was 4-for-5 shooting.
But Owens countered with nine rebounds and six points.
And Cannon, who didn’t even log a single minute in Alcoa’s quarterfinal win Thursday, played 15 minutes against Brainerd and gave Alcoa coach Ryan Collins seven points, five rebounds, a block and a steal.
Not to mention, an indelible moment and possible game-clinching moment.
Cannon grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed free throw by Winton. And, in the process of going back up for a stick-back score, Cannon was fouled while shooting. His shot soared high, bounded off the top of the glass and came down through for a score.
Officials convened to discuss whether or not the shot should count.
It did. And after Cannon made the free throw for a 66-59 lead with 2:06 to play.
“I thought it was the right call. The top of the backboard is in play, as far as I know it. Don’t quote me, necessarily, on that,” Collins quipped. “I was arguing for it.
“I liked the fact they huddled up. Sometimes you need a gift on that. Again, I though (Cannon) just made winning plays. He’s a kid who didn’t even get in the game in the quarterfinal. And he never wavered.”
HOW THE LEAD WAS BUILT
Alcoa enjoyed a 37-25 halftime lead, as Carter absolutely cooked in the second quarter. From the 4:50 mark of the second quarter to the 1:40 mark, Jahvin Carter scored 12 points and helped extend the Tornadoes lead from eight to 16 points.
The Tornadoes also took advantage of being in the bonus, sinking 8 of 9 at the free-throw line in the first half.
Moreover, they won the rebounding advantage (15-8), beat Brainerd in second-chance points (11-0) and only had one turnover.
The only gaffe was a questionable technical foul called on Winton after he hit a deep 3 early in the second quarter that put Alcoa ahead 21-13. But it didn’t deter their pace nor momentum.
Brainerd shot 53.3 percent in the first half but had 11 fewer field-goal attempts than Alcoa, just one offensive rebound and six more turnovers than the Tornadoes.
The Panthers turned up the defensive pressure coming out of the break and cut their deficit to 39-31 in the early minutes of the third, but a Brady Haun corner 3 off an assist from Eli Graf bumped Alcoa’s lead back to 11.
The Tornadoes’ lead dwindled to one point twice in the final minutes of the third, as Brainerd beat Alcoa on the boards 10-5 in the quarter. But Alcoa never relinquished the lead.
Cannon scored on a layup with 2 seconds left in the third and Jahvin Carter stole the inbounds and tacked on another score for a 50-44 advantage with 8 minutes remaining.
“I feel like it was a big momentum swing for us,” Jahvin Carter said. “They hit us with a hard punch in that second half and in that third quarter. So, for Elijah to get that putback and I got that steal and floater, it changed everything.”
Jahvin Carter opened the fourth with a quick score. He added another with 7:07 left, putting Alcoa up 54-44 just three seconds after Boo Carter checked out with his fourth foul.
Eli Owens’ putback on a Carter missed reverse gave the Tornadoes a 12-point lead with 5:35 to play.
And though the lead almost evaporated from there, Alcoa made the plays that mattered.
“That’s who we’ve become. I don’t know how we’re doing it. I don’t know if it’s magic in a bottle or whatever,” said Collins.
“But, for a long stretch now — a long stretch — we are just finding a way to win games. And that’s all you can ask of your team.”
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GAME HIGHLIGHTS – View HERE.
5STAR PHOTOS: Alcoa Tornadoes vs. Brainerd Panthers – 2023 Class 2A State Semifinals