By Bill Sorrell
There is a score at every Briarcrest boys basketball game that will never be on the scoreboard.
This point total is discussed before the game, at halftime and after the final buzzer.
Head basketball coach John Harrington challenges the Saints, the defending Division 2-AA state champions, to play in a way to win another.
“We have a standard that we play to. He starts out every game telling us we have to play at a 9. We have been playing at a 6 the whole year,” said guard Tyler Harrington, John Harrington’s son. “Our standard to win a state championship is to play at an 8 and 9. We haven’t done that a lot. We have to start doing that towards the end of the year.”
In a Division 2-West AA game on Friday against St. Benedict at Auburndale, the Saints played at a 9 the first half, outscoring the Eagles on a 24-2 run that expanded a 20-17 lead.
The Eagles made it close in the second half before Briarcrest celebrated homecoming with a 67-58 win.
“I thought we played at a 9 level the first half. We talk about finishing games and play at a 9 the whole game, at a 8, 9, 10. I thought the second half we were about at a 2 or 3,” said John Harrington. “You’ve got to be consistent on the defensive end and we are not right now. You have to play every possession at a 9 or a 10. Defensively you have to guard, offensively you have to execute.”
The victory improved Briarcrest, which is ranked No.1 in the state by the Associated Press in Division 2-AA, to 18-5, 3-0 in region. St. Benedict is 13-8, 0-3 in region.
“It was a big win. We needed to get over this hump and get 3-0 in the region,” said Tyler Harrington. “We were up 22 at half (44-22) and they outscored us 13 points (36-23) in the second half. Coach is mad about that. We start out really, really hot but we have to start finishing games. Coming up to the state tournament there are going to be a lot of really good teams that we are going to play.”
St. Benedict head coach Rob Sabau called Briarcrest the best team in the state “hands down. I don’t see why not (to repeat as state champs). They have a lot of talent, size, athleticism and Kennedy Chandler (2019 Mr. Basketball) is the best player probably in the state.”
With a target on their backs each game, “We are everybody’s national championship game,” said John Harrington. “It’s difficult because we take everybody’s best shot.”
The Eagles rallied from their deficit by making good shots in the third and fourth quarters.
“They shot the ball well in the second half. Dante Carrasco shot it well in the first half. I thought we did a good job defensively (first half) but in the second half they all shot well. We lost our focus, lost our intensity. They executed very well, made some threes,” said John Harrington. “We are not as mature as we need to be. With a 22-point lead at half, you make sure you get the right shot every time. I don’t think we took good shots in the second half.”
The Eagles also cut down on turnovers that led to the Saints’ double-the-score lead in the second quarter.
“We felt good at halftime. If we could correct the turnovers and do what we had worked on in practice we would have a chance to get back into it and make it interesting or win it. That is what we did. Credit to our kids to sticking with it,” said Sabau. “We took care of the basketball in third quarter. We made it more of a half-court game and didn’t allow them to make easy buckets in transition which was our plan all along.
“We try to be a defensive-minded team. As long as we don’t turn the ball over, I think we do a pretty good job of that. Shooting wise we felt like we were going to be a good shooting team. We are starting to shoot it very well this time of the year which is a good thing.”
Making a game-high 5 treys out of 11 attempts, Carrasco, a senior shooting guard, finished with 17 points. Sophomore guard Chip Brunt had a team-high 20 points by hitting 7 of 11 field goals and 4 of 8 three-pointers. Bobby Westbrooks added 13 sinking 5 of 12 field goals and both his three-pointer attempts.
“He is a very talented sophomore for us,” said Sabau of Brunt.
A point guard and junior, Chandler had a game-high 23 points and Michael Malone scored 19. Chandler sank 9 of 16 field goal attempts and 2 of 5 three-pointers while Malone, a senior, made 7 of 11 field goals and 4 of 5 treys.
“Michael Malone really played well for us. He has been good the whole year but having a break-out game with 19 that was big time. That is what we needed tonight,” said Tyler Harrington, a statement echoed by his father.
“He boosted the lead, made some threes and was very explosive. He was the key to winning tonight. Michael was playing great,” said John.
Helping fuel the Saints’ 24-2 run in the second quarter, Malone had 15 points by halftime, including 10 in the second quarter and two steals.
“The turning point was our turnovers in the first half. We talked all week about their athleticism, their pressure, that we had to shorten passes up and not dribble too much. We did the exact opposite in the second quarter for a stretch. That was the difference,” said Sabau.
Said Carrasco, “We got a little sloppy with the ball. We got a little rushed but at halftime we came together and got our minds right. We came out strong. We ran our sets really well in the third quarter, the series of offensive plays we had. The third quarter was pivotal.”
The Eagles cut the Saints’ halftime lead to 50-38 at the end of the third with a 16-6 advantage. Chandler’s trey had given Briarcrest a 47-22 lead.
Tyler Harrington’s basket made it 49-26 and Rodney Newsome would hit a free throw for the Saints’ 50th point.
Westbrooks scored 11 in the third including a trey on the Eagles’ last possession.
“Bobby Westbrooks played a very good second half,” said Sabau. Westbrooks averages a team-high 17 points.
Brunt opened the game with a trey but a basket by Omari Thomas and steal and a dunk by Marcellus Brigham, who has committed to play basketball at Jacksonville State, gave the Saints had a lead they would never lose, 4-3 with 6:22 left in the first quarter.
Brigham followed with a trey before an excellent behind-the-back shot by Chandler. His free throw doubled the lead to 12-6 and Malone later got the lead to 10 points, 16-6.
Carrasco hit two straight three-pointers to open the second quarter to get the Eagles the closest they would come, 20-17, with 6:09 left in the second. Carrasco ended the quarter the way he began with another trey. He finished the first half with 12 points, all treys.
“They are one of the best three-point shooting teams in our region. If you leave them open they are all spot-up shooters. They were lighting it up from downtown,” said Tyler Harrington.
A three-sport athlete, Carrasco put in a lot of off-season work on his three-point game as well as getting his feet set through practice drills, focusing on the rim, “zooming everybody else out and knocking it down,” he said.
Sabau said, “Dante played a great whole game. He is a really good kid who has worked a lot on his shooting. He has stepped up his senior year. He is going to the Naval Academy. He is a really good leader, a great young man.”
A free safety on the football team, wide receiver, long snapper, kickoff and punt returner, Carrasco made first-team all region (for free safety) during the 2019 and 2018 seasons, was All-Shelby-Metro in 2019 and played in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl High School All-Star game where he started at free safety.
“I will beginning a new chapter in my life at Navy where I plan on developing my skills as a leader and soldier,” said Carrasco, who will consider walking on in football, basketball or track. His career goal is to be an aviator in the Marines.
Since fifth grade Carrasco has played against Chandler.
“He’s a lot bigger, faster and stronger now but it’s always a great time playing against him,” he said.
For Tyler Harrington playing with a Mr. Basketball is eye-opening.
“Sometimes you look at him and you are just like, ‘Wow man, that is insane how he does things like that.’ He gets everybody open. He is one of the most fun players I have ever played with.”
John Harrington said that Chandler being a “great” point guard is a “major help” who helps break presses and sets up offensive plays.
Trying to defend Chandler is a challenge.
“You hope to slow him down. That is all we can do and hope he misses a lot of shots which he doesn’t,” said Sabau.
Chandler, who scored a season-high 35 points in an early game this season, has not committed to where he will play after high school.
A senior-laden team, the Saints have a roster of football recruits. Thomas, who was Mr. Football in Division 2-AAA in 2019, is committed to play at Tennessee along with teammate Jabari Small. Both were all-state.
Reggie Neely has committed to Tulane, Newsome to Memphis. A third baseman, Tyler Harrington, a junior, has committed to play baseball at Memphis.
His brother Trey Harrington is captain this season of the Southeastern Louisiana University baseball team. A junior, he started 50 games as a sophomore.
The seniors are one reason why John Harrington planned a difficult schedule.
“Our schedule has been killer this year,” he said.
The Saints have played the No. 1-ranked team in Kentucky, Louisville Male (a 78-70 overtime win), the No.1-ranked team in Mississippi, Jackson Callaway (a 74-64 win) plus Archbishop Stepinac of White Plains, New York (69-62 loss), Vashon of St. Louis (63-60 loss), Blanche Ely of Pompano Beach, Florida, (57-55 win) all in the City of Palms Classic at Florida Southwestern State. The Saints lost to Vashon (57-51) in January.
The Saints defeated IMG of Bradenton, Florida (32-22) in the ARS National Hoopfest in Memphis. They have beaten Center Hill (58-54) and lost to Olive Branch (58-57). They have defeated Pace Academy of Atlanta (78-76), lost to Huntington (West Virginia) St. Joseph Prep (85-76) and defeated Alamo Heights of San Antonio (83-65) and Sidney Lanier of Montgomery, Alabama (89-70).
“We have played five of the top 25 teams in the nation and beat two of them (Male, Callaway). We are an all-around good basketball team. When we make teams run up and down we can make them turn the ball over and (get) fast break transition,” said Tyler Harrington. “Our record is not as good as last year but our schedule has been completely different.”
There is a reason.
“Most seniors have been through the wringer four years. You had to create a very difficult schedule for them to keep their attention,” said John Harrington. “When the stage is set they are going to play at a high level.”
Tyler Harrington said, “Playing those out of town teams is only going to make us better in the long run.”
Briarcrest’s early fourth quarter run outscored the Eagles 11-3 for a 61-41 lead with 4:50 left. Chandler scored six of the 11 points with Malone adding a three-pointer. Armani Brooks scored a trey for SBA.
The Eagles scored six straight behind Brunt’s goal and two straight treys by Carrasco and Adam Barbieri. It was 64-49 after Chandler’s three-pointer and later Brunt scored his 17th point of the game to cut the lead to 65-53. A trey by Brunt and a goal by Carrasco cut the lead to nine after Malone made two free throws for a 67-53 Briarcrest lead.
The Saints victories have been bolstered by defensive stops.
“I feel like we have one of the best offensive teams in the state. Once we get stops it turns to points on the other end,” said Tyler Harrington. “We have to get stops in a row, not just sporadically. We have to play together and finish out strong and not take anybody lightly.
“Usually if teams start coming back, we turn it back up,” he continued. “We have to stop getting disinterested once we get up on a team. We have to put our foot on their throat and cut them off, stop letting them get anything.”
Adding points for the Saints were Brigham with 9, Harrington 7, Thomas 6, Newsome 3.
Brooks finished with 6, Barbieri 3 for the Eagles. Corey Wilhite, who averages a team-high 8 rebounds, grabbed 3 rebounds along with Barbieri, Brunt and 6-8 Ethan Jones. Westbrooks had 4 rebounds, Brooks 2, Carrasco 1. Wilhite has had offers to play college football from smaller schools but has not committed.
While playing for his father can be a challenge, Tyler said, “You know he loves you no matter what. He is going to tell you to do the right thing and if he going to get onto somebody sometimes he has got to get on to you to get it through to them.”
John said, “Every dad wants their son to play great every game. The luxury or the problem that I have I am coaching him and I am the one that can sit there and yell at him and praise him. I want him to play at a 9 and a 10, that level. I put a lot of responsibility on him on the defensive end. He is the leader out there on the defensive force. When we are not playing good defensively, he takes the criticism most of the time.”
His desire is to teach Tyler to be a servant first.
“He can shoot more threes but throw the ball inside, be unselfish, be a servant,” he said.
John Harrington, who played baseball and basketball at Dyersburg State, coaches with intensity.
“I am going to coach every game to the very buzzer. I liked to play sports growing up. I don’t ever give up playing. I am a competitor in everything that I do. That is my mature to be very competitive,” he said.
Sabau, who calls his team resilient, is looking for a competitive four quarters.
“If we can ever put 32 minutes together, I think we are going to be tough to beat down the stretch,” he said. “If we had executed for 32 minutes we would have had a much better chance to win the game.”
Said Carrasco, “I wish the result had gone differently but I am proud of the way the team fought back. Each game we have done a great job except for a small part of the quarter where we have had some slip ups. Once we get all 32 minutes down we are going to be almost unstoppable.
“When we put our minds to it, we can come back. We are going to work really hard in practice and get a different result the next time we play them.”
The Eagles host the Saints Feb. 21.
The Saints will continue to march on toward their long-term goal.
“We have been talking about it all year,” said Tyler. “We want to do something special, go back-to-back.”