In his five years as Gainesville High’s boys basketball coach, Benjie Wood has presided over some talented teams.
But never before had he seen the Red Elephants share the ball like they did Saturday, Feb. 17.
The result was a dominant, 83-47 win against Pope in the first round of the Class 6A state tournament in Gainesville. The Red Elephants (21-6) won a first-round playoff game for the fourth consecutive year, but this team showed Wood something the others never did.
“I was most proud of how unselfish we were tonight,” Wood said. “This is the most unselfish I’ve seen a Gainesville team since I’ve been here. The ball was hot, and we were moving it around well. We didn’t shoot too well, but we rebounded and stuck to the process.”
Did they ever.
By the time Wood called on his reserves late in the fourth quarter, top-seeded Gainesville held a 43-18 edge in rebounding. That was a big reason the Red Elephants, who will host No. 3 seed Alexander in the second round at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21, claimed their 18th straight victory.
Alexander defeated second-seeded Sprayberry, 62-52, on the road in the first round of the playoffs.
Gainesville’s unselfishness, meanwhile, resulted in five players recording double-digit points, led by senior forward KJ Buffen with 16. Wood said Saturday’s performance was the kind of outing he has been trying to pull out his team heading into the playoffs.
“It’s hard to be that unselfish when you’ve got a lot of good players,” he said. “There’s not a lot of minutes for everybody. It can be hard when you’ve got those kind of talented players to give up that selfishness and give up those minutes, but we did that tonight.”
It paid off as Gainesville jumped out to an 11-2 lead, but No. 4 seed Pope (18-10), out of Region 7-6A, rapidly pulled within three points. The Greyhounds took care of the ball better than most early against the Red Elephants’ suffocating press, not committing a turnover until the 1:15 mark of the first quarter.
But then the floodgates opened, with Gainesville snagging two more quick takeaways before the period closed. Guard Rafael Rubel scored 11 of his 13 points — including a trio of 3-pointers — in the first quarter, which ended with the Red Elephants ahead 25-9.
Helping matters was Gainesville’s 11 rebounds, especially on the offensive end, to Pope’s three during the opening period.
“We knew we had a size advantage on them,” Wood said.
Buffen, a Middle Tennessee State signee, completed a three-point play to aid the Red Elephants in pushing their lead to 26 points midway through the second quarter. The Greyhound unraveled with 12 turnovers in the quarter, during which Gainesville senior guard Xavier Bledson put on a showcase with five assists before exiting the game with three fouls.
The Red Elephants entered halftime ahead 51-27 and continued pouring it on. Junior guard Brent Kelly canned a 3-pointer to put Gainesville up by 30 points late in the third quarter, and officials shorted the final period to six minutes due to the Red Elephants’ massive lead.
It swelled to as many as 37, though, before Wood pulled his regular rotational players.
Gainesville sophomore guard Griffin Neville finished with 14 points despite playing only the final stretches of both halves — about five total minutes. He knocked down four 3-pointers, including a string of three straight in the game’s closing minutes.
“He did the same thing at Buford, hitting three 3-pointers for us,” Wood said. “He’s capable of doing that, but it’s hard to get him in with all the other players we have. His job is to come in and shoot the basketball.”
Red Elephants senior forwards Bailey Minor and Jarrel Rosser each posted 10 points.
Junior guard Makhi Wilson paced Pope with 12 points, while senior forward Jackson Baylark added 11 in a performance that featured a pair of second-quarter dunks.