Alex Lomax, AAA "Mr. Basketball" in 2017 and a finalist this season, was hampered by foul trouble against Whitehaven, still managing to score 14 points - all in the second half. He was named tournament MVP. (Photo: Terry Davis)

Penny Hardaway calls it “the run” and with a team as loaded with talent as East High School it can come at any moment. In an instant there is a spark and the Mustangs have pushed out on their challengers. It can happen right away or sometimes it takes much longer.

On Saturday in Murfreesboro in a battle for the state AAA title, the Tigers of Whitehaven were determined to stay within striking distance of the Mustangs and then make a move to get over the hump. A good effort, however, did not bring the ultimate reward, as East took Whitehaven down 72-50 to win their third straight TSSAA championship among AAA schools.

“We wanted to knock them out early, but we couldn’t do it today,” Hardaway said. That is credit to (Whitehaven’s) Faragi Phillips who is the coach of the year. He coached through injuries and everything. He brought that team despite injuries to the state championship game.”

The all-Memphis final produced the same result as the previous four times the teams had played this season – a win for the Mustangs; a loss for the Tigers. In the championship game, the East offense did not flow as smoothly as it usually does. That largely was because the heart and soul of the team, Alex Lomax, had to sit with two early fouls and was held scoreless in the first half.

“Sitting on the bench, I wanted to help my teammates, but I couldn’t,” said Lomas. “I was getting frustrated. I wanted to go back out there and do whatever I could to help the team and do whatever it took to win.”

Lomax, winner of the AAA “Mr. Basketball” honor in 2017 and a finalist this year, scored 14 points in the second half, fouling out with 3:54 left to play and East leading 59-48.

“It has been a great season,” Lomax said. “My goal coming in every year has been to win a state championship. Any awards that come in between, I am thankful for. Mr. Basketball is not on my mind. If it comes, it comes; it doesn’t matter. I have been blessed and fortunate to win it, but the state championship is the only thing on my mind every year, since I was in middle school.”

East’s big man James Wiseman had made two unsuccessful bids for a title with Nashville’s Ensworth Academy. He came out against Whitehaven determined to bring about a winning outcome. He had 11 points, including four powerful dunks, in the first half.

“I just wanted a state championship so bad. It is my first one,” Wiseman said. “I went out to just try to end it right there. I went out there with a killer mentality and tried to seal it right there.”

The Tigers countered the size of the Mustangs by going small and fast, trailing East by only four points (15-11) at the end of the first quarter. With the deficit at 10 points (31-21) with 1:29 left in the first half, the Tigers rallied back, cutting the East Lead to 31-26 at the break.

With 5:20 left in the third quarter, Wiseman picked up his fourth personal foul after being called for a technical foul. He spent most of the fourth quarter on the bench. The Tigers had their own foul-related issues. Anthony Whitmore fouled out with 4:54 remaining in the fourth quarter with Whitehaven trailing 36-32. With 1:57 left in the third period, Ryan Boyce had to leave the game after being fouled and falling into the padding on the goal post. The score at the time was 44-34. Boyce hurt his groin during the sub-state game against Cordova last week and reaggravated it during the collision.

After Lomax fouled out, Hardaway turned to Chandler Lawson to control the pace of play and to break the full coach pressure that was put on by Whitehaven as they sought to cut a into the Mustang’s lead.

With 2:37 left and East trying to control the tempo, Lawson made a spinning move toward the basket and was fouled to push the score to 60-50. The icing on the cake for East was a soaring dunk by Wiseman with 2:09 left in the game.

“We have been in that situation before,” Lawson said, addressing what he was called upon to do after Lomax filed out. “I told myself to be calm and be patient and let the game come to me and take over it when I have a chance.”

Wiseman finished with Mustangs with 19 points and 6 rebounds. Chandler Lawson contributed mightily to East’s domination on the boards, collecting 16 rebounds to go with his 11 points. The tournament’s most valuable player was Lomax.

The Tigers (24-7) were led by Jesse Payne with 11 points. Latrell Carter and Kavion McClain each put in nine points.

Hardaway got emotional, shedding tears, after the final horn sounded.

That’s three gold balls (and titles) in a row for the Mustangs of East High School. (Photo: Terry Davis)

“The emotions hit because it is so tough to do,” said Hardaway reflecting the run of East success. “We were fortunate to get a Malcolm Dandridge and a Chandler Lawson to start this thing off to go with an Alex and TJ Moss and be lucky enough to get Ryan and James this year. All the credit is to these guys. Just thinking about their journey and what they have accomplished, it just hit me at once.

“This is amazing. It is almost impossible to do. We are achieving things we wanted to do.”

The East faithful enjoyed a jubilant celebration.

“It was so many people depending on us,” Lomax said. “There were also people that did not want us to succeed. It is a lot young guys on my team that has never been in this situation and I just wanted them to experience it. I knew it would just be the greatest feeling and I want them to get back here and have that same feeling.”

During the post-game press conference, Hardaway smoothly evaded all questions relating to the possibility of him soon being named the next head coach of the University of Memphis men’s basketball team. Asked what is next for him, Hardaway smiled and said, “I’m going to play golf.”