KJ Buffen still remembers every bit of how the game played out.
In fact, the memory of last year’s devastating state quarterfinal to loss Langston Hughes has lingered for every one of his Gainesville High boys basketball teammates. What stings Buffen in particular, though, was having to watch from the bench after fouling out early in overtime as his team experienced a 72-69 defeat on its home court.
“I remember how it felt to lose that game,” the senior forward said. “After I fouled out, it was tough not being able to be out there to help us try to win.”
Today, after more than a year of waiting, Buffen and the Red Elephants will finally have a chance to exact revenge against the Panthers.
Oh, and a state championship will be up for grabs, too.
Gainesville and defending champion Langston Hughes will clash for the Class 6A state title at 8 p.m. today at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. It’s a rematch the Red Elephants (24-6) have craved ever since the Panthers (26-5) dashed their title hopes a year ago.
“I’m happy we’re playing them again,” Gainesville junior guard Brent Kelly said. “We beat them once last year in the regular season, then they came here and beat us. Now we get to see who’s really the best. I’m glad we can play them and have a chance to get revenge.”
His teammates feel the same way. During their dominant playoff run, several Red Elephants have brought up last year’s quarterfinal loss unprompted when discussing their high level of play and what has motivated them as they strive to end the program’s 34-year state title drought.
But dwelling too much on a quest for revenge can be costly, Gainesville coach Benjie Wood said.
On top of preparing his players for a talented Langston Hughes squad that features Virginia Tech signee Landers Nolley (32 points per game), Wood has had to manage their emotions heading into what will be a pressure-packed game regardless of the two teams’ history.
“We’ve talked about it,” the fifth-year coach said. “We just have to understand that emotions don’t win championships; execution does. … It’s a state championship, so it doesn’t matter who it is that we’re playing. If you come out too charged up, you won’t be able to execute.”
Wood’s message seems to have stuck.
“There are a lot of different emotions for us right now,” said Buffen, a Middle Tennessee State signee. “But when it comes to basketball, emotion doesn’t win games. We just have to focus on us.”
That approach has carried the top-seeded Red Elephants to their first state championship game since 2013 — when they lost by four points to powerhouse Miller Grove — and now they’re aiming to be the Gainesville first team to win it all since the 1983 and 1984 squads claimed back-to-back titles.
Gainesville has made quick work of its tournament opponents so far, winning the first three games by an average of more than 35 points.
The Red Elephants topped 100 points for the second consecutive contest last Saturday in their 102-86 semifinal win, a game they mostly dominated, except for one late push by Heritage.
“We’ve been locked in on executing and sharing the ball,” Kelly said.
Fellow No. 1 seed Langston Hughes appears to have experienced a little more difficulty in the playoffs. The Panthers won their first three postseason games by a combined 23 points before using a big fourth quarter to pull away from Jonesboro for a 69-49 victory in the semifinals.
But the Red Elephants know they’ll have their hands full with Langston Hughes, especially after the Panthers stunned them as a No. 3 seed in last year’s tournament.
“They have Landers Nolley back, so they’re good,” Wood said. “Most of the year, we’ve both been ranked near the top of the state. This is a game everyone has sort of anticipated all year. Now we’ve just got to go play.”
For Gainesville, that means channeling its desire for revenge into razor-sharp focus and crisp execution.
Buffen said the team has been zeroed in on the scouting report all week, keeping chatter about vengeance to a minimum. The Red Elephants haven’t talked all that much about the prospect of facing Langston Hughes again anyway, and they haven’t needed to with the memory of how the last matchup turned out etched into their minds.
The lasting image for Kelly is his team’s potential go-ahead 3-pointer missing the mark, followed by then-senior Derrick Cook’s layup to put the Panthers ahead by the final margin with four seconds to play in overtime.
Buffen, of course, remembers everything.
He can recall how Gainesville fell behind early before starting to pull away before halftime. Langston Hughes’ rally to reclaim the lead in the third quarter is still crystal clear to him, as is the final possession of regulation when the Red Elephants couldn’t connect on two shots.
Then came overtime, fouling out and looking on helplessly as his team went from state title favorite to just another footnote on someone else’s championship run.
So how about having the chance to exorcise those demons, dethrone the reigning state champions and claim the title all at once?
“It’s crazy,” Buffen said with a hint of a smile. “It’s so crazy, I can’t even begin to think about what that would mean.”