Xavier Bledson has emerged as a reliable 3-point shooter for the Gainesville Red Elephants, even though the freshman’s most important basket of the season came much closer to the basket.
Bledson took an in-bounds pass in the left corner with 3.6 seconds left, dribbled into the lane and banked in a short jumper at the buzzer to lift Gainesville to a dramatic 66-65 win against Apalachee on Tuesday night.
“He overplayed it,” Bledson said of his defender. “So I went to the goal.”
The Red Elephants (22-2, 11-1) secured the important Region 8-AAAAA victory, which sent the student section storming onto the court, despite being down two starters. Junior guard D’Marcus Simonds was serving the first of a two-game suspension for an ejection over the weekend and was in the student section, and shooting guard Sam Carpenter is out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
Gainesville coach Benjie Wood went with three freshman starters — Bledson, Bailey Minor and K.J. Buffen — and said Buffen and Bledson were the first two options on the final play.
“He’s played a lot of basketball,” said Wood of Bledson. “He’s a freshman, but we told all those kids, ‘You’re not freshmen anymore. You’re sophomores.’ And we have a ton of confidence in that kid. He’s been coming along, and we knew he would play well.”
The Red Elephants trailed by 11 in the second quarter, 10 at halftime and seven with three minutes remaining.
Gainesville briefly took the lead, 56-55, on a Messiah Dorsey layup with 4:47 left in the game before a 10-2 run pushed Apalachee ahead by a 65-58 margin.
Luke Maddox scored on a runner to cut it to 65-60 before a Buffen block gave the ball back to the Red Elephants and Messiah Dorsey cut it to 65-62 on a layup with 1:31 left.
Buffen added another block and Jermaine Fleming’s putback with 32 seconds to go pulled Gainesville within 65-64.
Ricky Wonzon missed the front end of a 1-and-1 for the Wildcats with 23 seconds remaining. Maddox lost control of the ball on the ensuing Red Elephants possession before Gainesville forced a jump ball that allowed it to retain possession with 3.6 seconds left and set up Bledson’s winner.
“The kids showed a lot of resiliency and fought their tails off,” Wood said.
Maddox paced the Red Elephants with 17 points, with Dorsey and Minor chipping in 14 apiece and Bledson adding 13.
Kamar Baldwin finished with a game-high 23 points for Apalachee. Baldwin scored 37 points in an 87-83 home win against Gainesville on Jan. 16. He started fast Tuesday with 10 first-quarter points but added only 13 the rest of the way. Kent Knowles pitched in 14 points for the Wildcats, with Wonzon adding 11.
“Both teams played with great heart and great effort,” Apalachee coach Kevin Morris said. “They just made one more play at the end of the game to close it out.”
Gainesville closes the regular season by hosting Winder-Barrow on Friday night. Apalachee (17-7, 9-4) returns to action in the Region 8-AAAAA tournament next week.
GAINESVILLE GIRLS 46, APALACHEE 25: The Lady Wildcats fought back from an 11-point first-half deficit to cut the Lady Red Elephants’ edge to 26-20 with 5:16 left in the third quarter.
But Gainesville’s Taylor Hawks and Breana Fair scored nine points in an 11-0 run that pushed it to 37-20 and removed any doubt.
Hawks finished with a team-high 13 points, with Fair pitching in 10 and Cori Griffith and Kayla Kelly chipping in six apiece for the Red Elephants (17-7, 9-3).
Kiara Hooks scored a game-high 14 points for Apalachee.
“I was glad we got some of our younger kids in, some of the freshman and sophomore players that don’t get a chance to play a whole lot,” Gainesville girls coach Brenda Hill-Gilmore said. “So hopefully that gave them a little confidence and some experience to help us down the road.”