The 2018-2019 basketball season has brought an entirely new look to the Gainesville boys team, which sports a first-year head coach and an almost entirely new cast of contributing players. The one thing that has remained the same for the Red Elephants has been the results.
After taking out Dacula 74-65 Friday night in the Region 8-6A tournament semifinals at Winder-Barrow High, this year’s Gainesville squad drew within one game of claiming its third consecutive region title.
“Coming into region, everybody was doubting us,” junior guard Datavian Buffington said. “We lost so many players from last year. We just have a chip on our shoulder this year.”
With the win, Gainesville will face Apalachee, a 57-56 upset winner against top-seed Lanier in the other semifinal.
That chip was on full display Friday night, as Buffington scored 12 points, grabbing two steals and dishing out a pair of assists. His work complemented Rafael Rubel’s team-leading 20 point effort to help power the Red Elephants (18-8) to victory and a spot in the region tournament finals Saturday night.
Gainesville head coach Chuck Graham did not shy away from the importance of the team’s next contest.
“At Gainesville, you want to get that Lanierland, and you want to get that region title,” he said. “As a program, it’s just another game for us, but it would be huge for those seniors who put everything on the line. It would be huge for those kids.”
Much like the team’s season as a whole, Friday night’s game began with a rough first quarter, as the Red Elephants struggled to find rhythm offensively throughout the opening frame. Dacula took its first lead of the night when Carlton Ingram scored on a put back following an offensive rebound and Falcons guard Cameron Carithers stole the ensuing inbound and put it up for an easy layup.
Dacula managed to hold onto a two-point lead eight minutes into the game, but in the second period, Gainesville started to find its footing.
Jordan Williams scored six points of an 8-2 Gainesville run that came halfway through the quarter to take the lead back. The Red Elephants finished the frame on another 8-2 run, this one closed out by Rubel’s acrobatic layup on a contested drive that came with two seconds left in the half.
The basket gave Gainesville a six-point lead at halftime, and the Red Elephants did not trail again for the remainder of the contest.
Gainesville started the third quarter on a 9-3 run that featured a steal, a put-back basket and a pair of assists from senior Brent Kelly. Dacula’s Mekhail Bethea scored nine points in the period to keep things from getting too out of hand, but the Red Elephants still led by nine going into the final frame.
The Falcons cut the deficit to five on a pair of occasions in the fourth quarter, but a timely 7-0 Gainesville run that came with about two minutes left in the game put things out of reach.
The win puts the Red Elephants within easy striking distance of reaching a milestone that Graham said has been important to this group of players from the beginning of the season.
“One of our goals was to be in position to play for a region championship, especially considering how we’ve played in the region in the last five years,” he said. “You want to get to a championship game. This group, especially that group of seniors, they wanted their legacy to be playing in these types of games.”
LANIER GIRLS 60, GAINESVILLE 49: The Lady Red Elephants played the top-seeded Lady Longhorns close for three quarters. But Lanier outscored Gainesville 12-5 in the fourth quarter, putting to rest the lower seeded team’s upset bid.
Tija Blackwell scored 29 points to lead the way for the Lady Red Elephants, with much of that coming in a dazzling first-quarter performance. Blackwell connected on all four of her shot attempts from 3-point range, and added an assist on a 3-point from Tia Shelton that tied the game at 21-21 with 30 seconds left to play in the opening quarter.
A four-minute scoring drought for Gainesville in the middle of the second period opened the door for Lanier to take a 39-29 lead at halftime, but Blackwell was at it again in the third frame, scoring 11 points to get the Lady Red Elephants to within four points going into the final eight minutes.
But that was as far as Gainesville would go.
Lanier scored the first five points of the fourth quarter, and the Lady Red Elephants never made it closer than a seven-point game the rest of the way.