Austin-East Head Coach Denard Bertram (far left) talks to his basketball team after practice Friday at the Clifford H. Ross Gymnasium. Bertram, in his second season at A-E, has guided the Roadrunners to their first state tournament berth since 2019.

A long night, but a good ending for A-E

By Steve Williams

Both teams should have realized right from the start that it was going to be a long night.

Austin-East’s Shane Cherry, a Mr. Basketball finalist, was whistled for a holding foul less than 30 seconds into the game after the Roadrunners scored on their first possession.

A-E went on to defeat longtime rival Brainerd 72-65 in the Class 2A Sectional at Chattanooga on Monday, March 4, to qualify for its first TSSAA state tournament berth since 2019.

But it didn’t seem to be an enjoyable evening for either side of fans due to how tight the contest was called. “No one was heard to say: They’re letting them play.”

The officials, who were from a Middle Tennessee Association, were consistent; you have to give them that. But the teams never adjusted.

As a result, 54 fouls were called – 28 on Brainerd and 26 on Austin-East. There were four technical fouls. There also were numerous traveling violations, including one “carrying the ball,” which is hardly ever seen called anymore, and two lane violations. A lot of the fouls were for minor hand-checking.

A-E made 28 of its 36 free throws, while the Panthers hit 19 of 32.

With all the stoppage, the game took 1 hour and 45 minutes to play. The average time for a high school game is 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Did the major unsportsmanlike incident involving Austin-East and Brainerd in 2018 that led to each school’s basketball program initially being suspended for two years have anything to do with how the last week’s game was called?

In his post-game comments, Austin-East Coach Denard Bertram said he always tells his players: “Officials do not want to be the reason why a game is won or lost.”

Bertram went on to comment on his team’s previous game for the region championship at Alcoa, which A-E lost 86-85. “That game, you didn’t know the refs were even there. Today (in the Sectional game), they wanted to enforce some things that put us kind of in a hole; it stifled us early. We weren’t able to get in a flow. We were over thinking everything. That was the tough part of it.

“But I can say, overall, all we want to ask is that you be consistent and I felt like they were consistent both ways (with the travels and touch fouls). So you have to learn to adjust.”

In Brainerd Coach Levar Brown’s post-game comments, he said: “I agree that it (the officiating) was consistent. I would like for the game to have flowed a little bit better. I think the fans were looking for excitement and not a free throw competition. But I do feel like it was very consistent, fair across the board. I don’t think it swayed in either direction.”

Brown added: “It was set up to be a really nice night, especially coming back from 2018 and the last time we were all in this gym. To play Austin-East again and to have that atmosphere with everything on the line again, it was set to be a really good night win or lose. The fans deserved an opportunity to see those guys go at it.”

Gene Menees, Assistant Executive Director at the TSSAA who oversees the basketball officials, said the state office does not instruct the officiating crews on how to call a game – tight or let them play. “Just call it by the rule book,” he said.

Not all crews are alike and it’s up to the teams to adjust, Menees added.

Shane Cherry led A-E with 31 points. Juwaan Troutman and Condis Cherry contributed 15 each and stood out down the stretch after Shane Cherry fouled out with 4:15 remaining. Demarcus Allen added 11.

Ashton Munson led the Panthers with 19 points.  Anthony Byrd chipped in 16, Trea Shaw 11 and Kobe Jackson eight.

Fourteen turnovers – eight by Brainerd and six by A-E – occurred in the opening period that saw the Roadrunners take a 16-10 lead.

The Panthers never led but pulled within one (16-15) early in the second period, which saw Brainerd commit four more turnovers. A-E pulled away for a 33-24 halftime lead.

Three-point shots were not falling for Shane Cherry or either team.

Every time Brainerd would close the gap, A-E would pad its lead. The Roadrunners was ahead 55-44 after three stops.

Munson’s jumper pulled Brainerd within four (57-53) with four minutes left in the game. Condis Cherry’s off-balance jumper built the lead back to six.

Then Troutman went to work, starting with a defensive rebound. He followed with two clutch free throws and then scored inside and added a foul shot for an old fashion 3-point play to extend A-E’s margin to 11 (64-53).

Coach Bertram felt the key to the win was rebounding.

Brainerd’s Coach Brown thought the difference in the game was Austin-East’s ability to “live in the moment.” He added: “I think our kids got consumed by the atmosphere and I think there were three mental lapses for our kids that didn’t affect Austin-East. Austin-East did a good job of just being consistent in what they do and what they do best. And they were able to pull out the victory that way.”

The Roadrunners (23-11) will play Douglass (33-0) in the state quarterfinals Thursday at 11 a.m. (CST) at MTSU’s Murphy Center in Murfreesboro. Brainerd’s season ends with a 15-15 record.

An ‘exciting time’ for players, families and A-E community

By Steve Williams

Going to state …

“It’s an exciting time,” said Denard Bertram, Austin-East’s boys basketball head coach, after the Roadrunners’ 72-65 Class 2A Sectional win at Chattanooga Brainerd on March 4. “It’s just like I told our kids; it’s about each one of these players and their families and the Austin-East community.

“Our community needs good things to happen, and we’re glad that we were able to shed that and get the people behind us. We feel like with that momentum it will help our school to see us all band together and be able to go and meet one common goal and that’s to win a state championship.”

The Roadrunners have been to the state finals 11 times, finishing runners-up eight times and winning state championships in 1977, 1985 and 1987.

“This school has been predominantly the best basketball school in Knoxville for years,” Bertram added. “We’ve had some deals with different situations – kids leaving – but this was big for us to get the younger group of kids to say, ‘Hey, we can stay at home and win also.’ And so that’s what it means for us.”


A ‘great job’ at A-E vs. Brainerd game this year

The unsportsmanlike incident involving the Austin-East and Brainerd boys basketball teams and fans in 2018 at Brainerd High was “a lingering idea in everybody’s mind” prior to this year’s Sectional game, said Coach Bertram.

“I know our administration worked well with Brainerd’s administration to make sure that the players stayed safe and that crowd control was handled and I felt like both schools did a great job,” said Bertram, who is in his second season as A-E’s head coach. “I felt like both fan bases also did a good job.”

Players from both teams went through the line shaking hands after the game, which Austin-East won. It was like the two schools and their boys basketball programs had come full circle.

After the incident in 2018, Brainerd Coach Levar Brown said he heard “We (A-E and Brainerd) couldn’t play each other, unless we had to (for the post-season reasons). That was initially one of the stipulations put in when we tried our first appeal; we would refrain from scheduling each other unless we just had to play each other.

“But that appeal got denied, so we took that off the table because we definitely still wanted to play each other. This has been a 30 to 40-year rivalry.”

Brown added that he and Bertram talked at this year’s Sectional game. “We definitely want to make sure we bring it (the game) back now that we are able to do so.”



Lot of administrative support and three new assistants

Coach Bertram said he plans to stay at Austin-East.

“It’s a big thing for the administration (led by Principal Tammi Campbell) and athletic director (Jeff Black) to have confidence in me and run the program the way we needed to,” said Bertram, who has three new assistants this season (Darius Collins, Joe Rader and Richard Vineyard) who have joined Dre Mathieu.