By Thomas Sellers Jr.
MEMPHIS — A squad expected to set records and even win a National championship took the court Sub-State Monday night to take on a historic team.
The nationally ranked Memphis East Mustangs led by NBA great Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway were four wins away from defending their Class 3A State championship. Meanwhile the Brighton Cardinals traveled to the East High School Gymnasium to participate in the school’s first Sub-State game.
Behind the hot shooting of Zach Lewis and Taelyr Gatlin, the Cardinals came ready to continue the historic run. The Cardinals were trying to deny Mustangs like Alex Lomax, Antavion Collum, Chandler Lawson, Eric Banks, Malcolm Dandridge, Nik Merriweather, Radarius Washington, Teddrick McGhee, Terrance Moss and Jayden Hardaway their rightful place back on top of the Tennessee Class 3A mountain.
The first quarter score was 21-21. And East could only muster a 36-34 advantage at the break. But the Mustangs turned up the defensive pressure and took advantage of the Cardinals lack of depth to pull away 73-54.
“Our Achilles heel is that we just don’t have that depth,” Brighton Head Coach Stan Gatlin said. “I’m really proud of how hard our guys have been playing. We’ve been playing with five or six guys all year. That’s been our thing”
The Brighton foundation of Lewis, Taelyr Gatlin, Aaron Alston, Jordan Johnson and seniors Alex Malone and Ethan Bell matched the high-powered Mustang stride for stride throughout the first 16 minutes.
Lewis paced Brighton with a pair of three-pointers early in the first quarter to make the score 15-14 in favor of East.
With the Mustangs ahead 19-14, Gatlin drove to the rim among the East trees to make a layup. That sparked a Brighton 7-0 run. Gatlin’s three-pointer tied the game at 19-19.
The Cardinals took the lead 21-19 when Gatlin made a pair of foul shots. The Mustangs tied the game at 21-21 before entering the second quarter.
Brighton jumped ahead in the early portion of the second period. Gatlin scored on a crossover move leading to a layup. Malone added a jumper and Lewis made a put-back bucket to make the score 27-23 in favor of the Cardinals.
East closed out the first half outscoring Brighton 13-7 to regain the lead at 36-34.
Brighton took the lead one more time early in the third quarter courtesy of a Malone three-pointer to make the score 37-36. East was sparked by Jayden Hardaway hitting a triple of his own to outscore Brighton 21-9 the entire quarter.
The size and depth of East seized control of the contest the entire fourth quarter leading to the 19-point victory. The Mustangs will try to defend their championship during this week’s Class 3A Boys State Tournament in Murfreesboro.
The Mustang’s balance attack was led by the younger Hardaway’s 19 points. Lewis scored 18 points for Brighton and Gatlin led all scorers with 21 points.
The Cardinal senior duo of Bell and Malone combined for 13 points in their high school finale. Both Bell and Malone earned starting spots on the historic Brighton team buying into Coach Gatlin’s system and philosophy.
“We did real good,” Bell said. “We made history this year. It feels good but I feel like we could have beaten them. I’m happy with what we did this year. It does suck that we didn’t go to State. I’m just glad we made history this year.
“I just stepped my game up,” he added. “They needed help shooting the ball so I just came in shooting everyday before the season. I just gave it my all into this season. Hard work does pay off.”
Malone became an example of hard work as well. Known for his defense and guarding the opposition’s best scoring threat, Malone added to his game on the other end in 2016-17.
“It was just a blessing to be a part of this team and making history,” Malone said. Brighton has never been this far before.
“I was just fitting in with the key offensive players helping them score, getting them open looks or whatever it took to win,” he continued. “I just followed along with what they had. Work hard and give it all you’ve got. There are rewards for hard work.”
As Coach Gatlin wrapped up his final locker room session for the season, he had a message for his seniors.
“I told them, ‘I tip my hat off to you guys for sticking around,’” he said. “They believed in me and gave me all that they had. I appreciate them. They are some great guys. I told them, ‘This is not the end of the road for you two. We have some unsigned senior games to go. We have some workouts I’m going to try to get set up for you guys.’ I told them to stay in shape for whenever you get that call.”
Gatlin said he hopes Bell and Malone will do like his 2016 seniors Tramaine Cooper and Colby Butler by carrying the Brighton Basketball name to the next level.
The veteran Coach said all the members of the 2016-17 Cardinal Basketball squad have reached a new level that will live on forever.
“I’m just thankful that I had an opportunity to make an impact and fulfill part of what I said I was going to do,” he concluded. “Now it’s time for us to get a State championship. Next year is going to be our year. If everyone stays healthy and come in with more hunger and desire, next year I feel we can get that State championship or get further than we did this year.”
By Thomas Sellers Jr.