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Gainesville boys basketball program preparing for 'long and athletic' Langston Hughes in 6A championship game
Panthers paced by Virginia Tech signee Landers Nolley II
Gainesville's KJ Buffen (0) puts up a shot while being guarded by Langston Hughes' Josh Butts (32) during the 2017 state quarterfinal game in Class 6A in Gainesville. - photo by ERIN O. SMITH | The Times

Gainesville High boys basketball coach Benjie Wood only needed a few words to sum up what he sees out of Langston Hughes, his team’s opponent in Friday’s Class 6A state championship game.

“They’re long and athletic,” said Wood, who has the Red Elephants in the state title game for the first time since 2013. 

Tip-off between Gainesville (24-6) and Langston Hughes (26-5) is set for 8 p.m. at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. 

Paced by senior forward Landers Nolley II, who averages 32 points and eight rebounds per game, the defending state champion Panthers are back in the finals after clobbering Jonesboro, 69-49, in the state semifinals Saturday at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. Langston Hughes topped Gainesville in a hard-fought, 72-69 quarterfinal matchup last season in Gainesville. 

Nolley, a 6-foot-7 Virginia Tech signee, scored 27 for the Panthers in the semifinals. He was at his best with a pair of 3-pointers and a layup early in the second quarter as Langston Hughes built a cushion against the Cardinals and locked up its state-title matchup against Gainesville. 

Nolley, who was a key contributor for the Illinois Class 4A state championship team in 2016 at Chicago’s Curie High, doesn’t stick out for towering over his teammates. Langston Hughes’ entire starting five ranges from 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-7, according to Wood. The Red Elephants coach said Nolley, ranked No. 4 in the state by, is too talented to expect to cut off all his opportunities to score.

“Against a player as good as (Nolley), we have to make sure he earns his points,” Wood said.

Tyrel Morgan (12 ppg., 7 rpg.) and Tyler Smith (13 ppg., 13 rpg.) are also key components for the Panthers’ high-scoring offense, along with talented sophomores P.J. Carter Jr. and Josh Butts.

The respect between the two programs goes both ways. The Red Elephants have topped 100 points in each of their last two playoff victories. 

“We have a ton of respect for the Gainesville program,” Langston Hughes coach Ro Welsh said. “Their team is loaded with weapons at every position, and they are extremely well coached.

“They have a senior-laden group with tons of experience. This will be one of the toughest challenges that we have faced this year and we’re extremely excited about the matchup.”

Earlier in the postseason, Langston Hughes sneaked past Coffee, 71-67, in the quarterfinal round. The Panthers beat Lanier by 13 in the second round after a 68-62 win against Allatoona in the playoff opener. 

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