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High school basketball: Gainesville boys hold off Heritage, 102-86, to reach Class 6A state finals
Red Elephants heading to state title game for first time since 2013
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Gainesville guard Xavier Bledson (13) shoots the ball during the Class 6A state semifinal game between Gainesville High and Heritage High in Carrollton, on Saturday, March 3, 2018. Gainesville defeated Heritage 102-86 and will move on to the state finals. - photo by David Barnes

CARROLLTON — For a while Saturday, it looked like the Gainesville High boys basketball team was on its way to another playoff blowout.

Leading by 23 points at halftime of Saturday’s Class 6A state semifinal, the Red Elephants were well within reach of their fourth rout in as many tournament games. Gainesville had won its previous playoff games by an average of more than 35 points per outing, and this one seemed like it would end in similar fashion.

But then the script changed. A flurry of fouls ruined the flow of the third quarter, allowing Heritage to creep back into striking distance. Then the Patriots caught fire from behind the arc as they cut their deficit to eight points with about three minutes to play.

It was a scenario the Red Elephants hadn’t faced during this postseason, but the end result was the same — victory, and this one punched their ticket to the state championship game.

Gainesville fought through a sloppy second half and held on for a 102-86 win here at the University of West Georgia. The program earned its first trip to the state title game since 2013, when it lost by four points to Miller Grove.

“It feels nice, but all the credit goes to the kids,” said Red Elephants coach Benjie Wood said. “We’ve got a lot of good players, but they all bought into sacrificing ‘me’ for ‘we.’ They all believe in the team concepts we’ve been preaching.

“We had to fight through some foul difficulty, and I’m proud of (the kids) for that.”

The Red Elephants (24-6), winners of 21 straight games, will face either fellow No. 1 seed Langston Hughes or second-seeded Jonesboro for the state championship at 8 p.m. Friday, March 9, at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta.

Their two potential opponents will square off in Saturday’s other semifinal game, which is scheduled to tip at 8 p.m.

Gainesville senior forward Xavier Bledson said he doesn’t care which team the Red Elephants face in Atlanta. He was still relishing Saturday’s win, a breakthrough that came after one-possession losses in each of the past three state tournaments, including a 72-69, overtime loss to eventual state champion Langston Hughes a year ago.

“It means a lot (to make it this far), especially after all the things we’ve been through in our high school careers,” said Bledson, who recorded a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds along with eight assists and a 16 of 17 mark from the free-throw line.

The Red Elephants led for almost the entire game, though it didn’t feel that way toward the end.

An early three-point play put the top-seeded Patriots (17-9) ahead 3-2 before Gainesville scored the game’s next 14 points.

Sophomore guard Rafael Rubel notched 10 of his game-high 22 points in the first quarter, but Heritage overcame 11 turnovers in the opening period to spark an 11-0 run.

Yet even through foul trouble, the Red Elephants reclaimed control. Though senior guard Kajuan Hale (10 points) sat most of the second quarter with three fouls and Heritage quickly got in the bonus, Gainesville turned its three-point lead into a 47-27 advantage in a matter of five minutes.

Poised for another big run following halftime, the Red Elephants soon found themselves operating at a crawl.

Each team committed nine fouls in the third quarter, and any rhythm Gainesville established while closing the first half on a 31-11 surge was now gone.

“There was no flow to the game,” Wood said. “But I’m proud of the guys for persevering, for fighting through that and doing what we do.”

Senior twins Jarrel Rosser (16 points) and Jarred Rosser (13)  kept the Red Elephants out ahead with easy buckets under the rim even as Heritage began to chip away.

Despite trailing by 24 points with 3:30 left in the third period, the Patriots closed the quarter on a 17-7 run that could have been more if not for Gainesville senior forward Bailey Minor draining a bucket right before the buzzer sounded.

Red Elephants senior forward and Middle Tennessee State signee KJ Buffen fouled out during that stretch, while Heritage received a big 3-pointer from senior guard Josh Archer (30 points) and a three-point play from junior guard and leading scorer Trelan Scott (14 points).

The duo’s clutch play continued into the fourth quarter as Gainesville slowly lost momentum. Archer, who had 20 points in the second half, hit another electrifying trey to cut the Red Elephants’ lead to 88-80 with 2:51 remaining.

But Gainesville answered the challenge, closing the game on a 14-6 spurt and hitting eight of their final 10 free throws. Rubel came up with a massive steal to give his team the ball up 10 points with about a minute and a half to play, and from there a slew of Patriots fouled out.

Hale, who sported a bandage on his right brow after sustaining a cut there in the first half, provided the final blow with a three-point play.

“We had to stay together and make things happen,” Bledson said. “ … We didn’t want to have the same memory (of last year’s quarterfinal loss). It brought us closer together, and we play harder because of it.”

Now the Red Elephants will play for the chance to win their first state championship since the 1983 and 1984 teams won back-to-back titles.

Gainesville showed it will be ready for that game, whether it’s a romp or a nail-biter.

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