By DAVID HUNTER
The Cannon County boys' basketball team was 32 minutes away from continuing the dream season. A win over Brainerd in the Class AA sectional on March 3 inside Robert A. Harris Gymnasium would have sent them the state tournament for the first time since 1985. However, the Lions fell short to the Panthers, 57-45, which ended their season at 28-6, 14-1.
"I loved them," CCHS head coach Matt Rigsby said to the players after the loss. "I told them to be proud of their accomplishments this year."
These two teams met during the first game of the 2014-15 season, which Brainerd also won 70-58 on November 11 at the Hall of Fame Game. Throughout the postseason, the schedule had been hampered by bad weather around the Volunteer state, including this game. Brainerd had to play its region final, the night before which it lost to rival Chattanooga Central, 53-44.
However, the two top teams in each region qualified for the sectional. Of course, the Lions had defeated Livingston Academy 63-59 on Feb. 28 to win the Region 4 title, so they earned the right to host the sectional. In front of a standing room crowd in Woodbury, the game lived up to the hype.
After a tight first quarter, which CCHS lead 14-13 after it, both teams went on long runs in the second trying to break the game open. Brainerd started the second stanza with a 10-0 run, which included two treys by Kentrell Evans to pull ahead, 23-14.
However, right before the break, the Lions finished the second quarter on a 14-2 run which included a couple of long distance shots by the McReynolds duo of Garrett and Marshall which helped give them a 28-25 lead at the half.
At the same time, the Panthers held the Lions' District and Region MVP, Josh Ruehlen in check as he scored only two points during the first 16 minutes of the game.
The second half belonged to the Panthers as they took the lead for good, 31-30 when Da'v Moore hit a jumper early in the third, and they never trailed again. Brainerd went on a 19-5 run to break the game open for good, which included a Malik Beavers steal into a bucket and a dunk by Moore over Marshall McReynolds to take a 46-35 lead early in the final quarter.
Ruehlen tried to get the Lions back in the game with six of his eight total points during the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late as the Lions magical season ended.
"We accomplished a lot," an emotional Ruehlen said after the loss. "We set out first to win the district, and then win the region. We wanted to make it to state, but we fell one game short. We know we accomplished a lot, and we set the standard here. We hope next year, they can live up to that standard and work just as hard.
Garrett McReynolds led the Lions with 13 points, while sixth-man AJ Daniel scored 11 off the bench. Brainerd's Marques Tipton had 15 to pace all scorers in the win.
The loss snapped the Lions 15-game winning streak, and it was the first one since Dec. 31 against a team from Kentucky. CCHS had also won 17 out of 18 games, and it was the first time since Dec. 20, which it lost to an in-state foe, Hamilton Heights.
As for the seniors, which included Daniel, the McReynolds duo, Jacob Nave and Ruehlen they helped make the Lions contenders in District 8 for the first time in a long time, especially during the past two seasons. After sub .500 records during their first two seasons, the Lions impressed the rest of Class AA in the final two of their careers.
Last season, the Lions finished 27-8, which broke a school record for wins, and they were also District co-champions to go along with a final ranking of No. 10 in the Class AA state AP Poll. This year, the Lions were better, but they came up one game short of making their ultimate goal of advancing to the state tournament for the first time since 1985.
"I have been playing with those other four seniors since I was five years old," Ruehlen said. "It has been great year playing with them and we just accomplished so much. We are very proud of that."