The Gainesville High boys basketball team’s brutal non-region schedule has produced more downs than ups so far, a trend that continued Wednesday night.
The Red Elephants struggled down the stretch in a 74-63 loss to Choctawhatchee out of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Gainesville (3-6), ranked third in Class 6A by Score Atlanta, committed three technical fouls and 11 turnovers in the second half.
Seniors Xavier Bledson, KJ Buffen and Kajuan Hale all returned to action Wednesday after missing the last five games, said Red Elephants forward Jarred Rosser. He attributed some of the team’s struggles in crunch time to players still trying to get on the same page.
“We’ve had a lot of mess-ups as a team so far, and we haven’t gotten back to us,” said Rosser, who had seven points. “(Xavier), KJ and Kajuan just got back, so we’re still trying to gel as a team.”
Six-foot-6 junior Diante Smith had a double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds for the Indians (7-0), who MaxPreps pegged as No. 2 in Florida’s Class 7A and the eighth-ranked team overall in the state. Classmate Joshua Williams scored 13 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, which Choctawhatchee closed on an 28-13 run.
Bledson had a team-high 12 points along with four rebounds for Gainesville, which was coming off an 81-67 victory at defending Class 5A runner-up Cedar Shoals on Tuesday night.
Rafael Rubel (11 points) was the only other Red Elephant to score in double figures.
Strong defense characterized the early portion of Wednesday’s game, with the score tied at 2-all halfway into the first quarter. Gainesville didn’t record its first field goal until more than five minutes into the contest when Bledson found Buffen for a dunk.
But the Red Elephants finally got going and surged out to a 16-8 advantage, prompting an Indians timeout. They stretched their lead all the way to 12 points with about two minutes until halftime as Hale (nine points) hit back-to-back contested layups to get the crowd energized.
Choctawhatchee, however, took back momentum heading into the break thanks in part to a Gainesville miscue.
Indians senior guard Xavier Cain-Fuller (14 points) was fouled while attempting a desperate 3-pointer just before the buzzer, and he knocked down his trio of free throws to cut the Red Elephants’ lead to just 31-25 at halftime.
Foul trouble allowed Choctawhatchee to tie the game late in the third quarter. Junior guard Jayden Jones drew a shooting foul before officials assessed a pair of technical fouls to Gainesville, and Jones hit five of his six free throws to knot the game at 40 apiece.
Soon after, Stacey Jones drilled a 3-pointer to give the Indians their first lead since the first quarter.
“I felt like we rushed the ball some and took some bad shots,” Rosser said of the Red Elephants’ second-half miscues. “Then there were the turnovers, technical fouls, some calls against us. All of that really changed momentum.”
Yet Gainesville briefly reclaimed control, scoring the first six points of the fourth quarter to snag a 50-46 lead. Senior forward Bailey Minor started the period with a smooth 3-pointer, followed by an emphatic putback dunk by Jarrel Rosser (eight points, seven rebounds).
Williams and Smith led a furious charge in response, and some sloppiness on the Red Elephants’ part allowed Choctawhatchee to build a two-possession lead with about two minutes remaining.
Then officials whistled Gainesville for its third technical foul, and the Indians capitalized at the free throw line to put the game out of reach.
Jarred Rosser said the Red Elephants aren’t where they would like to be as their non-region schedule winds down. They’ll be seeking a return to form in next week’s Lanierland Tournament.