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Athletes of the week: Senior guards Blackwell, Shelton are Gainesville's dynamic duo on basketball court
Pair combined for 57 points in thrilling win over GAC on Dec. 4
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Gainesville guard Tia Shelton (3) dribbles downcourt during the first round game of the 58th annual Lanierland Tournament between Gainesville and East Hall in Gainesville, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017. - photo by David Barnes

Looking at the skillsets of Gainesville shooting guards Tija Blackwell and Tia Shelton, one doesn’t really work without the other, according to their coach.

Together, this senior duo always seems to match one another in terms of intensity, leadership and scoring prowess on the floor. And so far, it has translated into big things for Alan Griffin’s Lady Red Elephants basketball team this season.

They are two guards who just make each other better said Griffin. But on some nights, their connection is almost telepathic. 

“We just read off each other,” said Blackwell, who is a four-year starter for the Lady Red Elephants and has shared the court with Shelton for the last three seasons.

The two have shined the most in critical moments when Gainesville has really needed a spark. Shelton and Blackwell know when it’s their cue, and last week’s thrilling victory over then seventh-ranked Greater Atlanta Christian made that clear.

In a tag-team effort, the pair combined for 57 points, including Blackwell’s career-high 33 points and game-winning stepback jumper in the closing seconds to lift the Lady Red Elephants to a 76-73 win on Dec. 4 in Gainesville. 

Shelton (15 points per game), who poured in 24 points behind Blackwell, totaled 16 for the second half against GAC. She drained a 3-pointer to put Gainesville back out front by two early in the fourth period. Minutes later, Blackwell took the reins to score the final seven points for Gainesville, with the game-winning loft rolling off her fingertips from just inside the right corner of the arc and down through the net with 22 seconds left.

“Both of them can shoot the lights out of the ball, but you don’t know how they’re gonna react in the fourth quarter in a big game until it happens,” Griffin said. “They wanted the ball in their hands because of the confidence (in) their game.

“I knew they had it in them. It was really exciting to see it come out.”

Last Friday night, it was Shelton’s turn to steer the ship. She racked up a game-high 25 points as the Lady Red Elephants rolled to an 84-21 rout of Southwest Atlanta Christian. Blackwell chipped in 15 points as Gainesville (5-3) captured its fifth win of the young season.

It’s been a common theme for the two returning starters. For those reasons, they are this week’s Times co-Athletes of the Week.

On-and-off the court, Blackwell and Shelton are cornerstones for a program in revival. Griffin first noticed their obvious aptitude for honing their skills on the court when they took part in 4-on-1 workouts this summer. But it was their dedication to the smaller details — outside the scorebooks — that really won over their coach. 

“They are the first one’s in and the last one’s out (at practice). Both of those kids are just such good leaders for us,” Griffin said. “They are the one’s helping the coaches out — picking up a water bottle here or there. Academically, they are never on my radar for struggling in the classroom. They are just really high-quality kids.”

Blackwell certainly takes some of that weight off the shoulders of her coaching staff. The first to spring out of the locker room on practice days, Griffin spots Blackwell — one of three seniors on the varsity team — leading a drill on proper shooting form. 

Blackwell wants this year to be a memorable one. So far it has been for the staple who is just 46 points shy of 1,000 for her career. 

“(The seniors) just came in thinking, ‘Alright, this is our senior year. We gotta go out with a bang ... might as well play better as a group, as individuals,’” said Blackwell, who averages 22 points, six rebounds and five steals for the Lady Red Elephants.

When she’s not leading on the high school court, Griffin says Shelton devotes time to the local youth by coaching basketball camps at the elementary and middle-school levels. 

“Tia almost takes it over,” Griffin added. “Tia loves working with little kids ... is very motivated to pass the game along. ... It’s these little things. ... They both have real leadership qualities about them.”

It has been an across-the-board effort for Gainesville, from it’s senior class down to freshmen, that has made this first leg of the season promising. From an 0-2 start to now, Griffin’s current group continues to surprise him every day. 

“We have an early Saturday morning practice, and every kid is there 15 minutes before practice starts, in uniform, on the floor shooting,” Griffin said. “You know, to start 0-2 and have that kind of reaction, and then fight a really good White County team the next Monday to the very end and hit a 3 to win the game, Showed that they all have a lot of heart. 

“And that’s what’s inspiring (for) us coaches to watch the girls just never quit. ... That’s what’s been real exciting so far.”

Gainesville hosts Clarke Central for a 7 p.m. tip this Friday.

Gainesville's Tija Blackwell shoots the ball during the team's practice on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, at Gainesville High School. - photo by For The Times
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