On Friday night, the Gainesville High boys basketball team had all of its players healthy and available for the first time this season.
The complete product put on quite the show.
After a tight first quarter, the No. 2 Red Elephants cruised past Creekview High 82-42 in a first-round Class AAAAAA state playoff game in Gainesville. Finally being at full health resulted in a balanced scoring night for No. 1 seed Gainesville (27-1), which had six players tally eight or more points.
“It feels really good to all be back together,” said junior forward KJ Buffen, who missed the most time of any Red Elephant this year after fracturing his ankle in the season opener. “We’ve always had an injury problem this season, but now we’re back. We were pleased with how we played, but we’ve still got a few things to tighten up on.”
The Red Elephants will face the winner of No. 2 seed Effingham County and No. 3 seed Tucker, which play at 4 p.m. today. Their second-round clash is set for either Feb. 22 or 23 at a time to be determined.
The Gainesville girls, meanwhile, saw their season end in a thrilling 54-53 loss to River Ridge that came down to the final possession.
There was little drama for the boys, who had the game in hand by halftime and were up by such a wide margin after three quarters that officials shortened the final period to six minutes. The fourth-seeded Grizzlies (10-19) committed 27 turnovers and lost the rebounding battle 38-20.
But Creekview tested Gainesville in the opening quarter, building a 12-11 lead despite coach Benjie Wood employing two different five-man lineups in the opening minutes.
Then the Red Elephants closed the half on a 35-13 run, using their length and relentless defense to force 13 turnovers in the decisive second quarter. Buffen said the key to Gainesville’s quick turnaround was simple: his coach’s frequent subbing took full advantage of the roster’s total availability.
“We have a lot of depth,” Wood said. “The guys trust the fact that they can come out and play as hard as they can. They don’t have to worry about getting tired because we have so much depth.”
Foul trouble only exacerbated the Grizzlies’ disparity in depth. Senior forward Chandler Wright picked up his third infraction halfway through the second quarter and fouled out a minute-and-a-half into the third.
The Red Elephants rolled from there.
Sophomore guard Brent Kelly assisted junior Xavier Bledson, who had eight points and five of his team’s 17 steals, on back-to-back 3-pointers. Junior forward Jarred Rosser (nine points) stole the subsequent inbound pass and waltzed right up to the rim for a dunk that made it 65-31.
Bledson dished an alley-oop to Rosser on the opening possession of the fourth quarter, during which Gainesville stretched its lead to 41 points.
“We started off a little slow, but the guys picked it up and did what they had to do,” Wood said. “At this point in the year, it doesn’t matter if it’s pretty or not. It’s survive and advance, and we did that.”
Junior forward Jarrel Rosser, Jarred’s twin brother, led all scorers with 15 points. Buffen followed up with 14, junior guard Kajuan Hale added 11 and Region 8-AAAAAA Player of the Year Bailey Minor pitched in 10.
The Red Elephants took care of the basketball, as well, committing only eight turnovers while assisting on 17 shots.
But Wood valued two things more than any other as his team advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the third straight year.
“We won, and no one got hurt,” the coach said with a grin. “So it was a good night.”
RIVER RIDGE GIRLS 54, GAINESVILLE 53: For a split second, Tija Blackwell’s attempt at a game-winning buzzer-beater appeared to be going in.
But the shot clanked off the rim, ending the Lady Red Elephants’ comeback attempt and their season in a first-round playoff loss. Blackwell’s desperation heave was the culmination of a frantic fourth quarter that featured seven lead changes.
“I’m extremely proud of our girls and their effort,” Gainesville coach Brenda Hill-Gilmore said. “It was a great season for us, especially not having any true post players on our team. It was just a good game between two great teams. We’re disappointed but still proud of our ladies.”
Senior guard Taylor Hawks led all scorers with 28 points, sinking 16 of 19 free throws for No. 2 seed Gainesville (17-10). But the third-seeded Lady Knights rode the hot hand of junior guard Faith Arthur (23 points), who collected a rebound and scored the deciding basket with about 10 seconds remaining.
Arthur, however, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 3.6 seconds to play, leading to Blackwell’s half-court shot that barely missed the mark.
Blackwell, just a sophomore, finished with 12 points, four rebounds and three steals. Lexi Palmer racked up 15 points and eight rebounds for River Ridge (19-11), while Arthur narrowly missed a double-double with nine boards.
The loss marked the final game at Gainesville for Hawks, who scored more than 1,500 points during her prolific high-school career.
“That’s a remarkable career for a young lady,” Hill-Gilmore said. “She has left a legacy here at Gainesville High. I told the girls, ‘We’ve got some big shoes to fill, and we’ve got a lot of points to make up for.’ ”
The Lady Knights will face the winner of No. 4 seed Stephenson — which upset No. 1 seed Brunswick 55-48 on Friday night — in the second round next week.