The Brownwood Lions led by as many as 23 points in the final minute of the third period, but had to fight off a feverish rally by the Big Spring Steers for a 55-50 playoff-clinching victory Friday night at Warren Gym.
With three district games left, the Lions (19-8, 3-2) — who snapped a two-game losing streak — lead Big Spring (6-22, 1-5) by three games. Even if Brownwood was to lose out and Big Spring won all of its remaining games, the Lions would own the tie-breaker over the Steers having swept the district series.
The Lions will be making their second straight trip to the postseason on the heels of a five-year absence.
Brownwood carried a 43-22 edge into the fourth period, where Big Spring put 28 points on the board and trimmed the Lions' advantage to 51-47 with 1:19 left.
“They got really hot, and we have to understand that we have to extend our defense when they hit a couple of threes,” said Lions second-year head coach Nadir Dalleh. “We just played with our hands down and anybody can hit a shot against a team with their hands down. It got into almost a street ball game and we were undisciplined and let some fouls bother us and get into our head. Maybe we thought we won the game already and if so, that's on me. I need to make sure we understand what's going on.”
Blake Bronniman and A.J. McCarty each added a free throw over the next 35 seconds to push the Lions' lead back to six points, 53-47, with 44 seconds to go. On Big Spring's next possession, McCarty recorded a steal and scored on a layup to extend the advantage to three possessions, 55-47, with 33 seconds left.
“A.J. missed a transition bucket at Sweetwater that would have been huge for us and after that game I just told him to go in there and finish, don't worry about double clutching and trying to make it look pretty,” Dalleh said. “That's what he did, and he had a great game tonight.”
The Steers drained a three-pointer with 24 seconds to go as Javone Ford nailed the long-range shot, but Big Spring's rally ended there.
The Lions led 13-9 after one quarter and 24-15 at halftime, then used a 9 of 12 effort at the free throw line in the third period alone to increase the lead to 23 points late in the frame. Brownwood sank eight free throws in a row at one point in third, and converted 17 of 32 for the game.
“We got to the free throw line a lot of times but didn't convert very many in our own gym,” Dalleh said. “It could have easily been a much bigger win. We've still got some things to work on and not a lot of time to do it. We have a couple of big games next week on the road and that will determine where we'll be in a couple of weeks.”
McCarty led the Lions with 19 points trailed by nine each from Bronniman and Xavier Porter, eight apiece from Zach Strong and Sean Yoder, and two points from Tommy Bowden.
Big Spring received 12 points from Jeremiah Cooley, nine from Mikal Banks, eight from Ford, seven from Abel Clark, and six from Dimas Garcia.
The Lions venture to Snyder (11-10, 2-4) Tuesday night as they attempt to strengthen their grip on second place in the District 5-4A standings. Brownwood rallied from 12 points down in the fourth period to defeat Snyder, 39-37, at Warren Gym on Jan. 19.
“It's always hard to play on the road, especially traveling that distance, but we'll be ready to go,” Dalleh said. “It should be fun.”