Xavier Bledson stomped on the court and roared in unison with the packed crowd at North Hall High School.
Gainesville’s junior guard had just stolen an inbound pass and dished to a teammate for an easy layup. The play prompted a timeout from Flowery Branch coach David Sokol, whose team appeared stunned by its 9-0 deficit just minutes into the game.
The Red Elephants were back in the Lanierland tournament — and they meant business.
After missing last year’s event due to a team suspension, No. 8 seed Gainesville used an early burst to blow by the defending boys champion and No. 1 seed Falcons 80-55 in the first round of Lanierland on Wednesday. Bledson’s steal and assist was one of several such plays that helped the Red Elephants build a 16-2 lead Flowery Branch couldn’t overcome.
“It’s a big statement,” said Bledson, who led all scorers with 15 points. “We weren’t able to play last year. Coming in, we had the mindset that we were going to get to the ball and win at that.”
Gainesville’s defensive pressure created numerous turnovers and halted any runs the Falcons tried to muster. Flowery Branch reduced the deficit to 17-9 early in the second quarter but never got it back within single digits after a quick flurry of points by the Red Elephants.
“If you get down big against a team with that kind of talent, it’s very difficult to come back,” Falcons coach David Sokol said. “You just try to make a point to cut the lead. You’ve just got to chip away at it. There’s not a 30-point shot.”
Flowery Branch could have used one.
Gainesville’s lead eventually ballooned to 30 points in the fourth quarter thanks to a 3-point barrage from Bledson and senior guard Michael White. Junior forward Bailey Minor did most of his damage before then, posting 14 points and seven rebounds.
Falcons senior guard Brannon Clark led his team in points and rebounds with 11 and four, respectively.
The undefeated Red Elephants will face No. 5 seed Lakeview Academy at 8 p.m. Thursday in the semifinals, which will be held at Gainesville High. Flowery Branch takes on No. 4 seed West Hall at 2 p.m. in the consolation bracket.
“Our kids are excited, and we just want to make the most of opportunities,” Gainesville coach Benjie Wood said.