For the last two seasons, the Gainesville boys basketball team progressed no further than the second round of the state playoffs.
Not only did the Red Elephants advance past that point Thursday night, they seem headed for a much deeper run.
No. 1 seed Gainesville crushed second-seeded Effingham County 70-44 in Gainesville to reach to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2013. The No. 2 Red Elephants (28-1) made it to the state championship game that season, and it’s clear they intend on returning to that stage.
“It feels great to finally get over that hump,” Red Elephants junior forward Bailey Minor said. “But we’ve still got a lot of work to do this season.”
Gainesville will host No. 3 seed Langston Hughes in the quarterfinals next Tuesday or Wednesday at a time to be determined. The Panthers erased a seven-point deficit heading into the final quarter to upset No. 1 seed Lee County 59-56 on Thursday night.
The Red Elephants beat Langston Hughes 74-57 at a neutral site to open the season Nov. 19.
It was a vintage performance by Gainesville, which used its length to force 25 turnovers and keep the Rebels (19-11) out of the paint. Effingham County coach Jake Darling lamented those giveaways and pointed to his team’s struggles against a Red Elephants’ roster that features five players 6-foot-6 or taller.
“We gave them 25 extra possessions,” he said. “Against a team as talented as them, you’re not going to have any hope of winning if you turn it over 25 times. It’s hard to compete with (the height disadvantage), but I think our guys battled well. We never gave up.”
The Rebels were in a position where they could have called it quits before halftime.
After going down 4-0 in the opening minutes, Gainesville scored 21 unanswered points over a nearly eight-minute stretch. Sophomore guard Brent Kelly (seven points) snagged a pair of steals during the run, converting one into an easy layup and turning the other into an assist.
“They just couldn’t handle our defensive pressure,” said Minor, who finished with 11 points and two blocks. “That’s what we base everything on. Our defense led to our offense.”
Effingham County senior guard Jaden Rodriguez, who had a game-high 13 points, hit a stepback 3-pointer to end his team’s drought. But the chippy first half reached a boiling point less than a minute later when officials sent both teams to their respective benches after junior forward Jarred Rosser took a hard foul away from the ball.
“It was to let everybody chill out for a minute,” Red Elephants coach Benjie Wood said. “Relax and let’s play basketball. Everybody was hyped up tonight. I thought the referees did a good job of taking control of the game and making sure we settled down.”
Gainesville entered halftime with a 38-18 lead after preventing the Rebels from scoring a 2-point basket in the entire first half.
But Effingham County immediately reversed that trend, connecting on three straight shots in the paint as the Red Elephants committed four turnovers on their first five third-quarter possessions.
“We talked about not giving up and not submitting to them,” Darling said. “We talked about attacking the basket. … We made that adjustment, and it worked out for us for a few plays. I thought we attacked the basket well throughout the second half.”
The Rebels still barely made a dent in the deficit. Gainesville responded with a 13-0 run punctuated by a putback dunk from Rosser (nine points) to go ahead 53-24, the team’s largest lead of the night.
The Red Elephants relied on their distinct size advantage to cruise the rest of the way. They won the rebounding battle 34-22 and allowed just six buckets from inside the arc.
Junior forward Jarrel Rosser, Jarred’s twin brother, led Gainesville with 12 points, while senior guard Michael White provided 10. Despite the low individual scoring totals, the Red Elephants had eight players record four or more points and dished out 14 assists (50 percent of their makes).
“They are truly a team,” Wood said. “We have a lot of good players, but they’re unselfish enough to sacrifice for the betterment of the team.”
Now Gainesville is moving on to the quarterfinals, a stage it nearly reached in each of the last two seasons. A one-point loss at Jones County in 2015 and a somewhat-controversial 87-84 defeat at McIntosh the following year ended those campaigns but propelled the Red Elephants to new heights this season.
“That definitely motivated us,” senior center Ross Tipton said. “We worked extra hard in the offseason. Coach made us hit extra shots because if we would have made a couple more shots, we would have won those games.”
After beating Creekview by 40 points in the first round and handling Effingham County on Thursday night, it looks like all those extra reps are paying off.