For Penny Hardaway and East, it's all about a third straight state title right now. (Photo: Terry Davis)

Distractions? What distractions? Oh, you mean the speculation – expectation – that head coach Penny Hardaway will soon be named the new head man for the University of Memphis men’s basketball team?

No problem, not so far for the East High Mustangs, who muscled their way into the state AAA championship game for the fourth straight year with a 72-60 run past the Knoxville Bearden Bulldogs. The last hurdle for a three-peat championship is Memphis rival East, a team the Mustangs have beaten four times this season.

With the state’s best AAA teams trying to knock off super-talented East, the Mustangs have managed to keep rolling. (Photo: Terry Davis)

Hardaway’s East time has had no easy run. In the opening round the Mustangs had to defeat the previously undefeated Blackmon (32-1) and got the job done, 52-33. Bearden  entered the game with 38 wins and only one loss and had East down by eight points deep into the third quarter.

On the comeback after being down by eight points, Hardaway said, “We had Nautica Harwell and Laquincy Parker come in and they turned the tempo up. We could not play both bigs at the same time, so we had to play one big at a time and start pressing.”

The Mustangs’ press keyed a 14-1 run in 1:48 seconds, propelling East to reclaim the lead at 44-39. The Mustangs began to go inside to James Wiseman and the Bulldogs did not have an answer.

Alex Lomas, the two-time winner of “Mr. Basketball” in the state of Tennessee has been around for all four trips East has made to the state tournament. Wiseman and Ryan Boyce have not won a state championship and they both would like to be a part of the three-peat for the Mustangs.

Boyce’s three pointer gave the Mustangs an early 9-5 lead. East continued to build upon its lead, which they built to 17-9 with 2:39 left in the first period. The Bulldogs trimmed the deficit to four points (19-15) to end the quarter.

In the second quarter with Wiseman on the bench the Bulldogs outscored the Mustangs 18-11 thanks to some solid defense and costly East turnovers. The Mustangs turned the basketball over 13 times in the first half. The Bulldogs did something few teams have done against East this season – lead at halftime, taking a 33-30 advantage into the break.

Despite the competitiveness of the game, East was not to be denied.

“This is a guard’s game,” Hardaway said. “Even though we have a big, they have great guards. I knew they were going to be aggressive the entire game. I was really worried about that, but we put a great game plan in. They were able to do some things to us, but it is just their (the Mustangs) talent overcame that.”

On the explosiveness of his team, Hardaway said, “We have a group we can put out there James (Wiseman), Chandler (Lawson), A-Lo (Lomax), Quincy (Parker) and Nautica (Harwell), that is a fast group and long group. That group can pour it on. I have not played that group enough together this year. I have played the two bigs together, but that group showed me that what they were made of. That group did not want to lose.”

The Mustangs were led by Lomax (18 points), Chandler Lawson (17 points) and Wiseman (16 points). The Bulldogs were led by Jacques Glover (14 points), Trent Stephney (11 points) and Drew Pember (10 points). East out rebounded the Bulldogs 37-20.

Next comes the challenge of beating Whitehaven for the fifth time this season. The game can be seen locally on the CW30 at 1 p.m. central.