The Gainesville High boys basketball team began and ended its season against the same opponent.
Kajuan Hale’s potential game-winning 3-pointer fell short at the buzzer as the No. 1 seed Red Elephants lost a 72-69 overtime thriller against third-seed Langston Hughes in the Class AAAAAA quarterfinals on Tuesday night in Gainesville.
The Red Elephants (28-2) had previously beaten the Panthers (23-8) at a neutral site 74-57 in the teams’ season opener Nov. 19. Langston Hughes coach Rory Welsh, whose squad will play in the semifinals at 8 p.m. Saturday at Fort Valley State’s Warner Robins campus, pointed to strategic adjustments and his players’ intensity as the difference this time around.
Gainesville coach Benjie Wood offered a much more simple explanation.
“They made more big plays than we did,” he said. “We came out in the second half a little flat and lost our character a little bit. We took some bad shots and missed several assignments and let them get going. And once they get going, they’re tough to stop.”
The Red Elephants twice rallied from nine-point deficits, including in the fourth quarter. Gainesville junior guard Xavier Bledson shot a contested corner 3-pointer on an inbounds play at the end of regulation, but it glanced off the rim with the game tied 64-64.
It was an intense game both on and off the court, featuring plenty of jawing from both schools’ student sections. Tensions boiled over minutes after the game when students got into a brawl in the bleachers, and an ambulance was called to the gym after police finally broke up the scuffle.
The No. 2 Red Elephants got the crowd on its feet on their first possession when Bledson (16 points, five assists) tossed an alley-oop to junior forward Jarred Rosser.
But Panthers junior guard Landers Nolley, who had game-highs with both 22 points and nine rebounds, immediately responded with a 4-point play. Gainesville fell behind 13-4 by the midway point of the first quarter before pulling off one of its trademark runs.
Hale (six points, five steals, four assists) sparked a 26-6 burst with a pair of steals and assists, first on a 3-pointer to Bledson and then for a layup by junior forward Bailey Minor (12 points, seven rebounds) that tied the game at 19.
“We were on every one of our assignments,” Wood said. “I thought (the Panthers) got a little bit tired, and we got the game up-tempo. We were getting good shots, getting the ball in the paint.”
No. 9 Langston Hughes, however, managed to trail just 34-28 at halftime before taking advantage of four Red Elephants turnovers early in the third quarter. Senior forward Richard Matthews, who had 12 points, hit a runner that tied the game at 39 apiece with about three minutes left in the period.
Senior guard Derrick Cook completed a 3-point play that help put the Panthers ahead 53-44 with six-and-a-half minutes left, and their 2-3 zone continued to frustrate Gainesville in the second half.
“We had to keep them in front of us,” Welsh said. “They’re big, long and athletic. We were already shorthanded, having lost four guys to attrition for one reason or another. So we don’t have a lot of depth. Really, the zone was going to give us the best chance of winning this game anyway.”
It almost wasn’t enough.
The Red Elephants mustered one more push, scoring nine straight points to create another deadlock. They even led 60-57 with two minutes left, but Matthews hit a tough shot in traffic to create the tied score that held until regulation ended.
Gainesville took a timeout with 22.9 seconds remaining, though junior forward KJ Buffen had a shot blocked out of bounds before Bledson’s errant 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded.
Buffen (16 points) fouled out early in overtime, and the Red Elephants trailed by three points with one minute, 26 seconds to play. But Gainesville cut the deficit to 70-69 and regained possession after Nolley walked, then the Red Elephants missed a 3-pointer.
Cook scored the final of his 19 points with four seconds left, and Wood used his final timeout to draw up a final play. Hale’s shot from just beyond half court missed the mark, ending the visibly dejected and stunned Red Elephants’ season short of their lofty goals.
“You tell them you love them and you’re proud of them,” Wood said. “There’s nothing I can tell them that’s going to make them feel better. I just want them to know that I love them and that I’m proud of them.”
Langston Hughes, meanwhile, continued its surprising run through the state tournament.
The No. 3 seed out of Region 5-AAAAAA has won all three playoff games on the road, blowing out second-seeded Dunwoody 59-34 before erasing a late seven-point deficit to beat No. 1 seed Lee County 59-56. The Panthers will face the winner of today’s game between Allatoona and Tri-Cities in the semifinals.
“We’ve fought through a lot of adversity throughout the course of the season,” Welsh said. “This season was like no other, in terms of the amount of personnel issues we were having, things of that nature that go on with kids. But the core group of guys stuck together.”
Gainesville loses only two seniors — White and center Ross Tipton — from a team loaded with juniors. After advancing to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2013, when the team lost by four points in the state championship game, the Red Elephants will likely return as favorites to win it all next year.
But given Tuesday night’s gut-punch of a loss, it’ll be a while before they start thinking about those possibilities.
“I don’t want to talk about the future,” Wood said. “The future doesn’t matter right now.”