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Gainesville, East Hall set for Lanierland championship game rematch
Red Elephants on another dominant tournament run after big semifinal win
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Gainesville small forward KJ Buffen (5) jumps to the net during the semifinal game of the 58th annual Lanierland Tournament between Flowery Branch and Gainesvile in Flowery Branch, on Friday, Dec. 29, 2017. - photo by David Barnes

A year after completing one of the most dominant runs to a Lanierland championship, the Gainesville High boys basketball team is potentially in the midst of an even better one.

The top-seeded Red Elephants coasted to an 81-44 win against No. 5 seed Flowery Branch on Friday at Flowery Branch High, punching their ticket to today’s title game. Gainesville (6-6) won its three Lanierland games last year by a combined 112 points, but after Friday’s big win and a 107-46 victory against Johnson in the opening round, it could shatter that mark this year.

In Red Elephants coach Benjie Wood’s eyes, the reason for his team’s dominance against the Falcons (8-5) was simple.

“I thought the kids did a good job of competing tonight,” Wood said. “We played hard, and I’m proud of our guys.”

Their performance set up a championship rematch against second-seeded East Hall, which Gainesville defeated 88-38 last season. The old rivals will face off again at 7:30 p.m. today in Flowery Branch.

“It should be a lot of fun,” Wood said. “It should be a packed house, and we’re just excited for the opportunity to play. … There’s always a little extra juice when Gainesville gets to play against East Hall.”

Senior forward KJ Buffen registered a game-high 16 points for Gainesville, which forced 25 turnovers and scored 26 straight points during its dominant second half. Classmates Jarred Rosser and Xavier Bledson scored 12 points apiece, and forward Bailey Minor had 11.

Flowery Branch hung around early thanks to senior guard Justin Quick (13 points), who hit a layup as the first quarter ended to cut his team’s deficit to 21-15. But Minor hit a 3-pointer as part of an 8-0 run, and the Red Elephants went into halftime leading by 15.

Then Gainesville really turned it on.

The Red Elephants outscored the Falcons 26-4 in the third quarter, forcing eight turnovers and holding Flowery Branch scoreless for the final six minutes of the period. 

“We told them at halftime that the first three to four minutes of the third quarter would be crucial to setting the tone and putting the game away,” Wood said. “I thought we did that.”

Falcons senior guard Patsheko Lutumba, who scored seven points, drilled a 3-pointer to finally halt Gainesville’s 32-4 extended run. The Red Elephants led by as many as 43 points before both teams began rotating reserve players in the fourth quarter.

EAST HALL 75, LAKEVIEW ACADEMY 62: For the third consecutive year, the Vikings are heading to the Lanierland championship game.

Finally breaking through and winning the tournament title, however, will be as tall a task as ever.

After overwhelming the Lions on Friday at Flowery Branch High, East Hall will take on defending tournament champion and Class 6A’s fifth-ranked Gainesville as it tries to claim its 25th Lanierland championship.

“It’s special to be back here, but we know the team we face is going to be very tough,” Vikings coach Joe Dix said. “ … I think Gainesville might be the best team in 6A.”

Junior forward Jayvion Rucker scored 21 points Friday for No. 2 seed East Hall (6-5), which jumped out to a double-digit lead midway through the first quarter before turning away several Lakeview Academy runs. The Vikings received 17 points from sophomore guard Mon Prather, who drained five 3-pointers.

The third-seeded Lions (5-3) were without the services of leading scorer and senior guard Drew Cottrell, who sat out due to a back injury. Junior guard Blake McIntyre produced 23 points in Cottrell’s absence, connecting on all 12 of his free throws

Despite a slow start and getting into foul trouble, Lakeview Academy cut its deficit to seven points early in the second quarter. That’s when East Hall senior guard Luke Cooper completed the last of his three three-point plays to spark a 9-0 run.

Cooper scored all 14 of his points of his points in the first half, which ended with the Vikings ahead 44-26.

Rucker scored eight straight points out of the break for East Hall, which led by as many as 22. Prather knocked down a trey right before the third-quarter buzzer sounded, and he hit three more during the final period.

“I thought we executed well in our half-court sets and got some good shots, and (Prather) was lights-out,” Dix said. 

The Lions, who will play in the third-place game against Flowery Branch at 4:30 p.m. today, trailed by 20 late before scoring the game’s final seven points. Junior forward Arturo Varela had 17 points for Lakeview Academy, and senior guard Jack Blackburn chipped in eight.

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