The Tyner Rams advanced to the state tournament for the first time since 2010 with Tuesday night’s 76-71 win over Region 4-AA runner-up Livingston Academy, solidifying a near-perfect season to this point.

“I love this,” Tyner coach Gerald Harris said. “This is the thing we’ve been talking about all year. In order to get to state, you’ve got to win this game. All year we’ve been talking about the journey.”

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That journey hasn’t ended yet, but the Rams certainly reached a crucial checkpoint Tuesday.

“We had some high expectations, but I think the guys have pulled through,” Harris added.

Sophomore Devonte Jones scored a team-high 22 points for Tyner (28-3), while senior Alex Watkins finished with a double-double (18 points and 14 rebounds) in, what proved to be, a hard-fought win.

The Rams, who dropped their last two sectional games to the Wildcats (2011, 2012), trailed for most of the back-and-forth opening quarter. Livingston (22-11), which buried 11 3-pointers in the contest, connected on three first-quarter 3s, claiming a 14-11 edge on Kaleb Qualls’ trey at the 1:25 mark.

“They’re a good team,” Jones said. “They’ve been to the state tournament multiple times in the past, and we knew they were going to fight hard because they’re tough.”

Jones was held without a field goal through the first seven minutes-during which time Watkins carried the load on the low block, scoring eight of Tyner’s first 11 points. He finally got in the scoring column in the final minute of the first quarter, canning the game-tying 3-pointer to make it 14-14 after one.

That, along with a rare four-point play from Jones to start the second quarter, served as the spark for the Rams, who, by halftime, had extended their lead to 15, as senior guard Sadik Spence scored 11 of his 14 total points in the final 2:30 of the first half.

But even with a comfortable double-digit cushion at the break-one that grew to as large as 60-40 during a lopsided third quarter-Tyner never let its guard down.

“I knew it was going to be a tough game,” said Harris. “I saw them on tape.These guys, they’re used to winning.”

“They definitely never gave up,” added Watkins. “We never played a team like that.

A barrage of fourth-quarter 3s brought the Wildcats back late, cutting it to 74-66 on Qualls’ trey with 50 seconds left, but there just wasn’t enough time.

Wade Eldridge finished with a 22 points to lead Livingston Academy, Zac Craig contributed 21 and Trent Nivens added 14. Qualls tallied nine points on three 3-pointers.

“There’s a lot of emotion right now,” Harris said. “I’m proud for my guys and I’m proud for my school.”

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