For Gainesville coach Chuck Graham, Thursday’s first-round Lanierland contest against Cherokee Bluff was almost like a practice. After working with Bears coach Benjie Wood for six years in Gainesville, Graham knew just what to expect going up against his former teammate, and it showed.
The defending champion Red Elephants converted an explosive third quarter performance into a 76-65 win over Cherokee Bluff to advance to a Lanierland semifinal game against Lakeview Academy on Friday.
“We’ve been on the same sideline for about six years,” Graham said of Wood. “I know what kind of coach he is. Great guy with Xs and Os and getting the kids prepared to play. I kind of felt like it was going to be a practice. We’ve been over this scenario many times in practice with him when we were together.”
Rafael Rubel led Gainesville (6-6) with 16 points while grabbing three steals and dishing out a handful of assists. Former Gainesville player Griffin Neville paced the Bears (8-7), scoring 29 on the night.
To start, the contest was an entertaining, back-and-forth affair.
Gainesville started hot behind a 3-pointer from Rubel followed by a steal and dish from Rubel to Datavian Buffington that put the Red Elephants up 5-0 early.
The Bears responded with five unanswered baskets, each made by a different Cherokee Bluff player. The quick run gave the first-year team a seven-point lead about midway through the opening frame.
The teams began to exchange baskets from there — Gainesville attempting to chip away at the deficit while Cherokee Bluff continuously responded, keeping the Bears at bay. The Red Elephants held a six-point lead after the opening eight minutes.
But Gainesville started to find its footing as the game went on.
After continuing to go back-and-forth for the first couple of minutes in the frame, the Red Elephants took control for a 13-0 run, turning their deficit into a five-point lead. A pair of Neville makes helped the Bears to draw even by halftime, but the needle had already started moving in Gainesville’s direction. The trend continued throughout the second half.
After a quick Buffington basket to start things off, Rubel picked Neville’s pocket, sprinted down the court and tossed a pass behind his back to Julio Santana for an easy layup.
“We started with low energy at first, but then we built it up and started playing well,” Rubel said via translator. “We thought it was going to be an easy game, but they came out hustling, playing hard. The second half, we started pushing the ball, hustling.”
Gainesville scored the first nine points of the quarter, and finished the frame on a 12-2 run.
The Red Elephants held a 16-point lead going into the final quarter.
Neville did all he could to overcome his old team, scoring 11 of Cherokee Bluff’s 16 points in the fourth frame.
But it was to no avail, as Gainesville played keep away for the final few minutes to close out the first-round win.
“I was proud of our guys effort, from top to bottom,” Graham said.
EAST HALL BOYS 62, JOHNSON 49: East Hall started slowly against first-round Lanierland opponent Johnson, but the Vikings finished strong.
After scoring just 10 points in the opening quarter and leading by only a point at halftime, East Hall turned up the heat down the stretch of its win over the Knights.
The Vikings (8-6) were led by Kylan Curry’s 24 points. Danny Garcia scored 17 for Johnson (5-6).
At first, it appeared East Hall would run away with the contest early. T.J. Campbell hit a pair of corner 3s on the Vikings first two possessions to give the team an early 6-0 lead.
But the Vikings cooled off from there, hitting just one more basket in the opening frame. Johnson’s offensive struggles were just as great.
The Knights missed six first-quarter free throws, hitting on only three shots from the field.
East Hall carried a two-point lead into the second frame, but failed to expand upon it before halftime. A 7-2 Viking run towards the end of the second period briefly gave East Hall some breathing room, but back-to-back three-point plays from Johnson narrowed the score once again.
At halftime, the Vikings clung to a one-point advantage, 28-27.
In the third quarter, they started to distance themselves.
Curry scored four points, while Rucker picked up three and added a steal and a block. East Hall locked down on defense, allowing only seven points and taking a five-point lead into the final frame.
Curry erupted from there, putting in 13 East Hall points and lobbing an alley-oop up to Jayvion Rucker as the Viking ran away with the victory.
With the win, East Hall moves on to play North Hall Friday at 5 p.m. in a Lanierland semifinal game.
NORTH HALL BOYS 55, FLOWERY BRANCH 46: Ty Smith scored 13 points, Luke Gunter added another 12 and the North Hall High boys basketball team advanced to the semifinals of the 59th-annual Lanierland with a win against Flowery Branch on Thursday, Dec. 27, in Gainesville.
With the win, the sixth-seeded Trojans (5-9) will face the winner of two-seed East Hall and No. 7 seed Johnson at 5 p.m. on Friday as tournament action shifts to West Hall High in Oakwood.
Mario Brown and Trey Shaw each paced the Falcons with 10 and nine points, respectively. Despite twice cutting the margin to five points inside the final five minutes, Flowery Branch still couldn’t catch the Trojans. North Hall scored seven of the final 10 points of the contest to pull away.
LAKEVIEW ACADEMY BOYS 60, WEST HALL 42: Blake McIntyre finished with a game-high 17 points for the Lakeview Academy boys in a win over West Hall in the opening round of Lanierland at Chestatee on Thursday.
It was a tight first half for the Lions (8-4) who were only up by two at the end of the first quarter and had four missed 3-pointers.
The Lions went 5 for 6 from the 3-point line in the second half, and with Arturo Varela's 15 points, were able to seal the win.
Lakeview Academy faces the winner of Cherokee Bluff- Gainesville game in a Lanierland semifinal game at 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 28, at West Hall High School.