Despite facing few challenges over the last two months, the Gainesville High boys basketball team knows the difficulty will begin increasing as it advances deeper into the Class 6A state playoffs.
That was apparent in the team’s second-round game against Alexander on Wednesday, Feb. 21, but the Red Elephants still had little trouble moving on.
No. 1 seed Gainesville jumped out to an early lead on its home court and kept the third-seeded Cougars at bay for an 82-57 playoff win in Gainesville. The Red Elephants (22-6), winners of 19 straight, are back in the quarterfinals for the second year in a row after losing a tight battle to eventual state champion Langston Hughes on that stage last season.
“We still remember last year, we still remember the pain of losing and don’t want to go through that again,” Gainesville senior forward Jarrel Rosser said. “We’re focused on getting better each day and fixing every little mistake because we want to go all the way this time.”
The Red Elephants took another step in that direction Wednesday, thanks in part to Rosser’s team-high 16 points. Fellow seniors Xavier Bledson (15 points), KJ Buffen (14) and Kajuan Hale (12) joined him in scoring double-digit points.
Gainesville will host either No. 2 seed Richmond Hill or fourth-seeded Lakeside-Evans in the quarterfinals Feb. 27 or Feb. 28. Its two potential opponents play today.
Though the Red Elephants aren’t sure who they’ll face in the quarterfinals, they know they’ll have to raise their game to match the competition, just like they did against the Cougars (16-12).
“(Alexander is) good team, and the further you get into the playoffs, the harder you have to work,” Gainesville coach Benjie Wood said. “I was proud of our composure tonight and the way we kept pecking away and sticking to our process.”
His players certainly stuck to the game plan.
Buffen aggressively attacked Cougars forward Brady Spence, drawing two quick fouls by the 6-foot-8 junior. He sat out the rest of the opening quarter and the first few minutes of the second period as the Red Elephants built a 26-10 lead.
“Our whole game plan was to go after (Spence),” Wood said. “He might be the leading shot-blocker in the state. We wanted to draw him out to the perimeter or go right at him because we couldn’t let him sit back and block shots.
“He had a few blocks against us, but he picked up a few fouls, too. KJ did a good job attacking the basket.”
Alexander managed to cut its deficit to nine points midway through the second quarter before Gainesville — which dominated fourth-seeded Pope, 83-47, in the first round of the playoffs — created a little more breathing room with a 36-24 halftime advantage.
The Red Elephants extended their lead to 19 points several times in the third period, which Cougars sophomore point guard Jaylon Brown (10 points) capped with three straight buckets for his team. Alexander pulled within 14 points on senior guard Corey Smith’s three-point play with about five minutes left, but Gainesville dominated the remainder of the contest.
Wood’s squad put a huge exclamation point on the win with 2:42 to play. A block by Hale turned into a fast break the other way as guard Rafael Rubel tossed an alley-oop off the backboard to Buffen, whose thunderous dunk put the Red Elephants up 77-57 and brought the crowd to life.
When Hale wasn’t weaving in and out of the Cougars’ press, he was stuffing the stat sheet with four assists, three steals, two rebounds and a pair of assists.
The senior guard’s consistent pressure helped Gainesville generate 24 turnovers, and he facilitated much of the offense that saw three different players score in every quarter.
“Our guys were locked in,” Wood said. “They want to win state, and we’ve got to be unselfish with the basketball if we want to do that.”
Senior guard Sidnie White led Alexander with 16 points, while classmate Chris’shaun Lundsford added 11.