Jonathan Richardson wasn’t up for hearing or talking about perspective Friday night.
The Whites Creek senior guard, who endured a winless sophomore campaign, wasn’t pleased with just making it to the Class AA state semifinals – where the Cobras dropped a hard-fought 66-62 decision to Brainerd.
“I feel like we should have won the championship,” Richardson said after his team watched an opportunity to play for a title slip away along with a five-point lead with less than five minutes remaining.
“We got careless at the end,” he said. “We played lackadaisically.”
Effort wasn’t the issue for the Cobras, but execution may have been. Whites Creek committed 22 turnovers while shooting 43 percent (23-53) from the field and 13-for-20 from the free throw line, allowing Brainerd to rally from as many as nine points down in the second half.
“Less than 15 turnovers is our goal every game,” second-year coach Carlton Battle said. “We pretty much tell our kids we’re going to lose the game with 22 turnovers.
“Brainerd made a lot of free throws (22-30). We hoped they’d miss some of those. We didn’t make as many. They just shot a little better.”
Whites Creek (22-12) started to create some distance in a tight contest, scoring eight straight points to open the second quarter and taking a 23-17 lead. The six-point margin held up into halftime and, with a pair of Ruot Monyyong baskets to start the third period, the Cobras found themselves up 35-26 at the 5:50 mark.
“Whites Creek played their butts off,” Brainerd coach Levar Brown said. “They deserved to be here. They’re a well-coached team. I didn’t know that until (Friday).
“(But) these kids are some of the toughest kids in the state of Tennessee. They never give up. They’ve seen every situation. That’s all we talked about, before and during the game. They’ve had to go against size, shooters, well-coached clubs, coaches with a lot more seasoning than me. We’ve just had to grind it out. That’s all we’ve been doing the last month.”
Down by nine, the Panthers – and specifically sophomore forward Jesse Walker — got back to the grind. Walker scored on consecutive possessions to cut that margin to five, and added four points in the final 20 seconds of the quarter to give Brainerd (30-5) a 44-41 lead.
Monyyong scored eight points in a 10-0 Cobra strike, and after a Kentrell Evans 3-pointer, Jaquan Brooks hit a pair of foul shots to make it 55-50 with 4:17 to play.
From there, Brainerd scored 12 of its final 16 points from the charity stripe and got key baskets from Malik Beavers and Evans to retake the lead just inside the two-minute mark. A couple of turnovers and a couple of missed free throws thwarted Whites Creek’s final comeback chances.
“We hadn’t been at this point, with so much at stake,” said Battle, who took over the team a season removed from an 0-23 campaign. At some point, we started playing not to lose.
“We wanted to play in the championship game, but I think we overachieved. There’s only going to be one winner.”
Monyyong finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks for Whites Creek. Jacob Frazier came off the bench and scored 13 points with eight rebounds, with Brooks scoring seven points and grabbing 13 boards.
Brainerd, which will play Fulton (a 75-66 semifinal winner over Fayette-Ware) at 6 p.m. Saturday for the championship, was led offensively by Walker (23 points, 15 rebounds), Evans (20 points) and Beavers (11).
“We’re happy we’re going to the finals, but we were supposed to, after last year,” said Brown, his team still stinging from a 77-43 quarterfinal loss to Christ Presbyterian Academy in last year’s tourney. “This is not complete. Go get what you deserve. That’s what we’ve been preaching.”