In his four years with the Gainesville basketball team, senior guard Brent Kelly has developed a bit of a history with Langston Hughes. And after watching Red Elephants playoff runs end at the hands of the Panthers in each of the last two seasons, Kelly was not about to let it happen again.
He went 5 of 6 from the free throw line in the final three minutes of Saturday night’s first-round playoff game and drew a crucial charge late as Gainesville escaped with a 73-69 home victory to advance to the second round of the state tournament.
“It felt awesome,” Kelly said. “It felt overwhelming. I was happy for me and all the seniors.”
Kelly scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half, and Gainesville coach Chuck Graham said it was the type of clutch performance he’s come to expect from the senior who Graham called “the leader of the team.”
“That’s one kid you can trust,” Graham said. “... If his attitude is right, our team is going to be right.”
The win sets the Red Elephants up with a second-round bout on the road against Cambridge next Thursday at 7 p.m. in Milton. The Bears are fresh off their own first-round win over Creekview.
“I like our team on the road,” said Graham on the prospect of having to play an away game in the next round. “I think we’re road built. Our game travels really well.”
It’s a matchup that almost wasn’t meant to be, as Gainesville very nearly allowed Saturday’s contest to slip away in the second half. The Red Elephants got off to a quick start with a pair of 3-pointers from Kelly and Rafael Rubel in the opening two minutes of the game, and steadily built that lead to seven over the course of the second period.
Gainesville pushed it to as much as 10 early in the third before the Panthers made their move.
Langston Hughes went on a 12-3 run early in the third quarter and scored the last 11 points of the frame to take their first lead of the night in the final seconds before the start of the fourth period.
Yet despite the Panthers’ late surge, Kelly said he never questioned what the outcome of the game would be.
“We just had to weather the storm,” he said. “Get it out, keep playing. That’s all.”
It didn’t take long for Kelly and the rest of the team to respond.
Maurice Hector took the lead back with a 3-pointer early in the final period, and buried another one a couple minutes later to tie the game after Langston Hughes went on a quick 5-1 run of its own.
“That’s his role for this team,” said Graham of Hector’s sharp shooting. “We always talk about be a star in your role. That’s his role for this team. He came in and knocked the shot down.”
From there, Kelly and Rubel went to work at the free throw line.
The two Gainesville guards went a combined 8 of 8 to go ahead by four points with two minutes remaining, and after hitting his last two shots from the charity stripe, Kelly drew a charge that gave the ball back to the Red Elephants with little more than a minute left to play.
Rubel got open for a couple of easy layups off of outlet passes with Langston Hughes playing in desperation mode defensively, and Gainesville managed to close things out against the Panthers for the first time since beating them in the first game of the regular season two years earlier.
It’s a big win for the Red Elephants, but as Graham pointed out after the game, “it’s not our end goal.”
“It’s back to work now,” he said. “I told our guys to enjoy tonight and tomorrow, but we’re back to work Monday.”