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After close call in region title game, Gainesville boys basketball ready for anything in playoffs
No. 2 Red Elephants open postseason against Creekview tonight
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Gainesville's KJ Buffen (0) puts up a shot during Gainesville's Region 8-AAAAAA game against Dacula at Gainesville High School Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Friday’s games
East Hall girls at Redan, 5:30 p.m.
Gainesville girls vs. River Ridge, 6 p.m.
Flowery Branch girls vs. North Springs, 6 p.m.
Chestatee girls vs. Chapel Hill, 6 p.m.
Dawson County girls vs. Lovett, 7 p.m.
Gainesville boys vs. Creekview, 7:30 p.m.
West Hall girls vs. Troup, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday’s games
North Hall girls at Pace Academy, 2:30 p.m.
Dawson County boys at Pace Academy, 4 p.m.
Buford girls vs. Decatur, 5 p.m.
Flowery Branch boys at Riverwood, 5:30 p.m.
White County boys at Sandy Creek, 5:30 p.m.
East Hall boys vs. Westminster, 6 p.m.
Lumpkin County boys at Cedar Grove, 6 p.m.
Buford boys vs. Lithia Springs, 6:30 p.m.
West Hall boys at LaGrange, 7 p.m.

Tickets are $7 per game, $10 for a doubleheader per GHSA rules

In last Saturday’s Region 8-AAAAAA tournament championship victory, the Gainesville High boys basketball team had to come from behind late — a rarity in a mostly dominant season.

The Red Elephants are happy the game shook out that way.

It’s a good primer for what No. 2 Gainesville will likely experience at some point in the state playoffs. Starting at 7:30 p.m. today against Creekview, the Red Elephants (26-1) know their path to the championship will be littered with pesky underdogs as well as suitable matches looking to knock off one of the favorites to win it all.

“We’ve just got to walk into each game with the mindset that we can’t let up on any team,” junior forward Jarrel Rosser said. “Each team is coming for us. We know we’re going to get everyone’s best shot.”

That’s certainly what Dacula gave Gainesville, which trailed by double digits for almost the entire region title game.

But the Red Elephants, who didn’t take their first lead until less than three minutes remained, used a 38-23 run over the fourth quarter to erase what was once a 15-point deficit and squeeze out an 89-84 win. Gainesville coach Benjie Wood said his team needed to experience that situation before the win-or-go-home playoffs began.

“We know what it takes to overcome that kind of thing now,” said junior forward Bailey Minor, the Region Player of the Year. “Now that we’ve been in that situation, the experience helps.”

The Red Elephants aren’t used to that kind of game after having breezed through the bulk of their schedule. Wood’s squad dominated its Hall County opposition by winning its three Lanierland games by a combined 112 points before winning 10 of its 12 region games by at least 23 points.

Both outliers came against No. 8 Dacula — once in a 63-59 road win Jan. 28 and then in the region tournament title game.

Wood claimed the Falcons merely outplayed Gainesville through the first three quarters last Saturday. But the Red Elephants fought through adversity as a team and relied on their strong bonds, players said, sparking their huge push to finish unbeaten in region play.

“Coach always says that if we play hard, there’s no one that can compete with us,” said center Ross Tipton, one of only two seniors on the team. “We played hard and listened to what he said we had to do, and we came out on top. It was a really special thing to happen, to know we can beat anyone when we’re down.”

The win earned Gainesville a No. 1 playoff seed and a first-round home matchup with fourth-seeded Creekview (10-18) out of Region 6-AAAAAA.

The Red Elephants will try to reach the second round of the playoffs, where their season has ended for the past two seasons. Last year’s playoff exit, and the manner in which it unfolded, still lingers with some players.

McIntosh High turned a nine-point halftime deficit into an 84-84 tie with 5.2 seconds left, and Chase Walter was fouled while dunking with about four seconds to play. But the clock incorrectly ran all the way down to 1.1 seconds before stopping, giving Gainesville little time to inbound the ball for a desperation heave that ultimately missed the mark.

Tipton said the Red Elephants derive some motivation from the 87-84 loss, which Minor claimed caused the team to “put something extra” into offseason preparations.

“That’s a big motivator,” Rosser said. “We don’t want that to happen again. We don’t want to be that team to make it this far then have to go home early.”

Gainesville is positioned nicely to avoid that same fate this time around, riding a 10-game winning streak into the playoffs. The Red Elephants suffered their only loss of the season Jan. 14 against Cedar Shoals, a 63-60 setback Rosser said got the team’s mindset back in the right place.

It’s a mindset that blocks out the hype heading into the postseason. Though the Red Elephants are aware some have pegged them to win state and others think they’ll fall short of that goal, they put no stock in pundits’ predictions.

They’re content to let their game do the talking, as Rosser put it. They’re confident they’ll prove any doubters wrong, whether by way of a blowout or a fourth-quarter comeback.

They’ve done both before.

“We just stayed together and fought through the adversity,” junior forward KJ Buffen said. “We’re playing well right now, but we have to play at our best through five more games.”

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