Since taking the coaching reins at Gainesville High, Alan Griffin along with his staff have aimed to bring out the positivity in the girls basketball program.
The first-year coach believes if morale is high and the joy of being around your teammates on the floor is a constant, the results will come.
If it’s not those “life-changing” hour-long bus rides filled with boisterous, singing teenagers after a road win, then maybe Tuesday night’s thrilling home victory over Greater Atlanta Christian was proof that Griffin’s message to the Lady Red Elephants has been well received.
Tija Blackwell erupted for a career-high 33 points, including the go-ahead stepback jumper with 22 seconds left, and two additional scorers amassed double figures as Gainesville (4-3) held off the seventh-ranked Lady Spartans for a 76-73 win in Gainesville.
“I told them yesterday at practice, ‘you know, if we do a couple things right, we can beat them.’ And they kind of looked at me like, ‘coach talk, whatever.’ But I was serious,” Griffin said. “I asked them (in the locker room) if they believe now. It was a fun win, just to see them constantly mature and grow and trust in each other. ... They are a great group of kids.”
Blackwell said maintaining composure was key against GAC, which led for three quarters and had four players score in the double digits. Lead scorer Jaida Hall (19 points) and Kennedi Williams (10 points) each drilled a 3 on back-to-back possessions as the Lady Spartans (3-4) erased a six-point, fourth-quarter deficit, and a Tamori Plantin (14 points, eight rebounds) layup knotted the score at 73-all with under a minute to play.
But Blackwell, unfazed by the moment, said she trusted her shot would go in as the ball rolled off her fingertips from just inside the arc.
“Coach was just telling us to play fast — not too fast — but play at your tempo,” added Blackwell, who also had six boards, three steals and a pair of assists. “Don’t stress, just play ball. Do you.”
Days after she matched Blackwell on the books with a 16-point outing against Marietta, shooting guard Tia Shelton added another breakout performance. Trailing 49-48 entering the final eight minutes, Shelton drained a 3-pointer to spark a 7-0 Gainesville run at the start, and finished the game with 24 points.
In order to combat GAC’s non-stop press, Lauren Teasley was a vital force for Gainesville’s offense. Inside the paint, Teasley tallied eight of her 14 points in the fourth period to keep the Lady Red Elephants ahead.
“We knew they had incredible athletes, and that they were gonna press for 32 minutes,” Griffin said. (Lauren) did a fantastic job handling the pressure in the middle of the court.”
Besides the scoring talents of Blackwell and Shelton, Griffin had several others chip in big minutes on the floor. Griffin was pleased to see players like Ariah Jeffers muscle her way for a handful of offensive rebounds against an athletic GAC squad. As Gainesville clung to its two-point lead in the closing seconds, Jeffers snatched away a defensive board on GAC’s final possession to ice the game.
“You know, we’re growing in depth, we’re working toward depth. But those girls just played as hard as they could for 32 minutes. And that’s all I asked them to do,” Griffin said.
Tamori Plantin (14 points) quickly broke the scoreless tie with a layup off a bounce pass 10 seconds from the opening tip, and the Lady Spartans jumped out to a 6-0 lead out the gates. Blackwell knocked down the first of two first-quarter 3s to put the Lady Red Elephants on the board at the 6:29 mark. And from there, the hosts clawed back as Blackwell’s second trey made it 8-all midway through the period, then a Teasley layup gave Gainesville its first lead at 12-10.
GAC mixed in a half-court trap at times to force seven Gainesville turnovers in the period. Meanwhile, Kaleigh Addie (16 points) scored the final five points for the visitors in the frame. She drained a 3 before snatching a defensive board and finished with a basket on the other end to gave the Lady Spartans a 21-18 lead at the buzzer.
Blackwell scored 10 of Gainesville’s 12 second-quarter points, but GAC’s Ava Irvin made a 3 to beat the buzzer to keep the Lady Spartans up 35-30 at halftime.
Gainesville will look to keep that positivity going at home for the next two games, beginning with Southwest Atlanta Christian for a 6 p.m. tipoff Friday night in Gainesville.
“We’re shocking a lot of people. ...It’s a good season, and we’re off to a great start,” Blackwell said. “I’m proud of that.”