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High school basketball: Gainesville boys breeze into state semifinals with 111-66 win against Lakeside-Evans
Red Elephants dominate behind big nights from Bledson, Hale, Buffen
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Gainesville guard Xavier Bledson (13) makes a pass during the Class 5A basketball quarterfinal game between Gainesville and Lakeside-Evans in Gainesville, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

In its Class 6A state quarterfinal game last year, the Gainesville High boys basketball team grinded out 32 frantic minutes plus an overtime period in what ended up being a heartbreaking loss to the eventual state champion.

This time around, the Red Elephants emerged from the quarterfinal round seeming poised to claim the title at season’s end — and they barely needed three quarters to do it.

Top-seeded Gainesville crushed No. 4 seed Lakeside-Evans, 111-66, on Wednesday, Feb. 27, in the final game on its home court this season. The Red Elephants (23-6) advanced to the state semifinals for the first time since 2013, and they’ll play for the right to go to the championship game at 4 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at West Georgia University in Carrollton.

“The guys were locked in today and were locked in yesterday,” Gainesville coach Benjie Wood said. “During pregame, I just saw that look in their eyes.”

Winners of 20 straight games, the Red Elephants’ semifinal opponent will be either North Atlanta or Heritage, a pair of No. 1 seeds who play at 7 p.m. today. A victory in that game will give Gainesville its first state championship game appearance since the 2013 team lost by four points on that stage.

For as much noise as Wood’s squad drew from the huge home crowd during their quarterfinal romp Wednesday, the team held a silent practice before taking on the Panthers (15-13). 

While the coaching staff remained quiet throughout the session, Wood said his large group of seniors took control and emphasized the magnitude of the game later that evening.

“It had a big effect on the game,” said Red Elephants senior guard Xavier Bledson, who led all scorers with 23 points. “We were all locked in and focused on doing what we had to do to take care of business.”

Gainesville didn’t need to search for motivation after how last year’s trip to the quarterfinals went. The Red Elephants rallied from nine points down in the fourth quarter of that game only to see No. 3 seed Langston Hughes prevail in overtime, 72-69, on its way to the state title.

“We came together after that, and it made us stronger,” Bledson said. “We knew we didn’t want to feel that pain again.”

Lakeside-Evans, on the other hand, wanted to subject Gainesville to another quarterfinal upset after stunning its first two playoff opponents. The lowest-seeded playoff team out of Region 3-6A managed to knock off No. 1 seed Stephenson, 65-63, and No. 2 seed Richmond Hill, 68-58.

But outside of the first few minutes Wednesday night, the Panthers never really had a chance to keep their improbable postseason run going.

Lakeside-Evans held a 7-4 lead midway through the opening quarter before the Red Elephants exploded to claim a double-digit lead that grew as the game progressed.

“I think we came out a little too excited, a little too jacked up,” Wood said. “But fortunately we were able to use our depth and get people out there to settle us down. From there, the kids did a good job of taking care of the game plan.”

Wood’s main objective was establishing a presence in the paint, which his players did from the get-go. Gainesville continually lobbed passes over the defense into the waiting hands of senior forward KJ Buffen, who scored 10 of his 18 points in the first quarter and did most of his work underneath the basket.

As a team, though, the Red Elephants assisted on their first nine buckets and forced 12 turnovers to lead 27-15 at the end of the opening period.

Much to Wood’s delight, they never let up.

Bledson provided 14 points during Gainesville’s 35-point second quarter, during which it led by as many as 29 points. Senior guard Kajuan Hale (22 points) contributed with a string of steals and assists as the Red Elephants pulled away.

Panthers sophomore TyShun Briscoe (16 points) scored the final five points before halftime to trim his team’s deficit to 62-38, but that didn’t slow down Gainesville one bit once play resumed.

The Red Elephants outscored Lakeside-Evans, 29-14, in the third quarter, and most of their rotational players sat out the final period, which was shortened to six minutes.

“That comes from maturity,” Wood said of his team’s relentless effort and energy even with a massive lead. “We’ve learned from the times when we’ve been in those situations and taken our foot off the gas.”

Even Wood’s reserves — most of whom are underclassmen — continued to pour it on with a flurry of 3-pointers. They scored 20 points in six minutes against the Panthers, who received 22 points from junior Kalen Williams and 18 from classmate Tucker Gilbert.

Now Gainesville’s starters and backups alike get a day of rest as the coaching staff travels to scout their potential semifinal opponents.

It’s a well-deserved break for the Red Elephants, even if their rotational guys got an extra quarter off Wednesday night.

“It feels amazing,” Bledson said of reaching the state semifinals. “This was our last home game, and it was just a good win. … We were all talking today, and the seniors came together and said we wanted to make our last ride a good one.”

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