ATLANTA — For the second year in a row, the Gainesville High boys basketball team saw its state championship dreams dashed by Langston Hughes High.
This time, it happened in the state title game.
Despite a furious comeback attempt, the Red Elephants experienced a 85-78 loss for the Class 6A championship to the defending state champions Friday, March 9, at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion.
Gainesville (24-7) fell short of its first state title in 34 years and a shot at revenge against the Panthers (27-5), who upset the Red Elephants in overtime of last year’s state quarterfinals.
Yet Gainesville fought to the very end, turning an 11-point deficit with 1:47 to play into a three-point hole in just 59 seconds.
“I’m so proud of the kids,” said Gainesville coach Benjie Wood, who will be leaving the team to take the same position at new Hall County school Cherokee Bluff when it opens this fall.
“They brought a lot of excitement to the area, a lot of excitement for the community and for basketball. But more importantly, they grew as young men.”
Langston Hughes senior Landers Nolley scored a game-high 34 points, including seven straight in the third quarter to give his team a lead it held for the remainder of the contest.
The Red Elephants received double-digit points from four different players, led by senior forward Bailey Minor with 17. Gainesville grabbed a 14-point lead twice before halftime, only to see the Panthers come storming back like they did in last year’s quarterfinal meeting.
“It’s hard to put it on one thing,” said Minor, who will continue his playing career at the University of North Georgia. “We played as a team the whole year, and we finished that way.
“I just love my team. … We’ve been together since we were kids, playing park and rec ball. I love them all. They’re my brothers.”
Friday was the first time the Red Elephants reached a state championship game since 2013, when they took a similarly tough four-point loss against powerhouse Miller Grove. The last team in program history to win a state championship was the 1984 squad, which defended the title the school won in 1983.
Early in the game, it looked like Gainesville would finally end the drought.
The Red Elephants raced out to a 17-9 lead before Langston Hughes clawed back into the game. The Panthers scored the final seven points of the first quarter, punctuated by senior forward Tyler Smith’s 3-pointer right before the buzzer to tie it at 21-all.
Though aggressive defense landed the Red Elephants in foul trouble, it began paying off midway through the second period. Gainesville forced a string of turnovers and erupted for a 14-2 burst over a two-minute stretch, grabbing a 14-point lead and energizing the large student section in attendance.
But Nolley, who had 16 points in the first half, completed a pair of three-point plays to keep his team in contention.
“He’s unreal,” Wood said of Nolley, a Virginia Tech signee. “He’s going to be a pro. He’s a great basketball player.”
Sophomore forward Josh Butts came up with another buzzer-beater for Langston Hughes, scooping up a loose ball and lofting it into the net to make it 45-38 at halftime.
The Panthers’ momentum carried over into the second half — Nolley made sure of that.
He drew the fourth foul on senior forward and Middle Tennessee State signee KJ Buffen, who scored all 13 of his points in the first half, sending Gainesville’s big man to the bench and cutting Langston Hughes’ deficit to just three points.
He then scored the final seven points of a 9-0 run by the Panthers, who claimed their first lead of the game with 2:16 left in the third quarter. Two of those points came on foul shots after the Red Elephants were assessed a technical foul.
“(Langston Hughes is) a good team,” Wood said. “We knew they’d make a run, but the kids fought their guts out. We ask for effort and attitude, and the kids fought hard all night.”
The Panthers took a six-point lead into the final period, but Gainesville’s defense rose up as the team sliced its deficit to 67-65 on a pair of free throws by senior guard Kajuan Hale (15 points) with about five minutes to play.
Then Langston Hughes delivered what seemed to be a crushing blow, ripping off an 11-2 run that included another pair of technical foul shots.
“I’m proud that the kids kept their heads through some unfortunate situations that were out of their control,” Wood said.
Did they ever.
Minor got fouled while nailing a 3-pointer on the very next possession, and he sank the following free throw to give the Red Elephants new life. The Panthers pushed their lead to six points before Gainesville sophomore guard Rafael Rubel (12 points) drilled a trey with 48 seconds left that reignited the crowd.
Wood called a timeout to reorganize his team, but the Red Elephants missed their final three shots as Langston Hughes scored the game’s next five points to seal its second straight state championship.
Nolley’s 10 rebounds gave him a double-double, and he also produced six assists. Smith scored 17 points for the Panthers, while junior guard Tyrel Morgan had 14.
Gainesville bids farewell to seven seniors — Minor, Buffen, Hale, Xavier Bledson, Jarred Rosser, Jarrel Rosser and Austin Long — who helped solidify the program as one of the best in the state over the last few seasons.
“I can’t put into words what they have meant to the program, the school and the community,” Wood said.