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Gainesville boys ready for playoff run
High school basketball playoffs start tonight
Gainesville High’s Brock Boleman (33) and Nick Johnson practice boxing out defenders during the Red Elephants’ Thursday afternoon’s practice at the Gainesville High gymnasium. The Red Elephants will host Eastside High this Friday.

Tonight's games

Callaway girls at Buford, 6 p.m.

Chestatee girls at Franklin County, 7 p.m.

Elbert County girls at East Hall, 7 p.m.

Hart County girls at Gainesville, 7 p.m.

Eastside boys at Gainesville, 8:30 p.m.

Nick Johnson had his teammate D.J. McDuffie right where he wanted him, crouched on all fours just a few feet in front of the basket. Not the ideal position to practice a post move, but that’s not what Johnson had in mind: He wanted to jump over him and dunk.

Although Johnson failed on his attempt, it was just a portion of the impromptu five-minute dunk contest at Gainesville’s practice Wednesday as the team prepared to open the Class AAA state playoffs tonight against Eastside.

Most teams might be focused on strategy and game film, and though the Red Elephants (16-8) do that as well, they feel it’s important to relax every now and then.

"You gotta be loose to play basketball," first-year coach Todd Cottrell said. "You gotta be focused, but you gotta be loose.
"There’s a few wrinkles you can add here and there, but you’re pretty much gonna do what you do."

For Gainesville that means win.

After an overtime loss to East Hall on Feb. 7, the Red Elephants have won six straight and 13 of their last 14. Part of that win streak is their run to a region championship, their first since 2006.

Not bad for a team that started the year 0-3 and was knocked out in the first round of Lanierland.

"It was rough, but we fought through it," McDuffie said of the winless start. "We kept faith in our team. We knew we had back-up coming, but we also knew we could hold down the fort."

That back-up game in the second game of the year when the football season ended, and the players on that team could hit the hardwood.

Among those players are four starters, Blake Sims, A.J. Johnson, Nick Johnson and Juwon Jeffries, and reserve Brock Boleman, who at 6-foot-6 is the tallest member of the Red Elephants.

But even with the football cavalry, Big Red still struggled. It wasn’t until a Christmas tournament that Gainesville felt like a team.

"We still were getting the results on the court, but I felt really good over the Christmas break," said Cottrell, whose team went 1-2 in the Woodstock Invitational Tournament. "It was kind of like a midseason training camp."

Since that time, Gainesville has only lost three times, its biggest win coming Jan. 6 against Franklin County.

Cottrell credits the midway camp as a turning point. His players credit their coach.

"He told us to do what our job is," Sims said. "That’s what he expects out of us, and that’s what we’re gonna do."

Their main job is to compete as a team and play disciplined defense.

"No matter what grade they’re in, if they see someone doing something wrong they’re gonna check ‘em," Nick Johnson said of the team mentality. "They have that right because it’s their team."

Cottrell admitted that the team did go through some bumps with the team mentality, but eventually they got over it.

"These guys had a purpose," he said. "They had a common goal that they all agreed on, and when things weren’t so good they could use that to refocus on what’s important. The good of the team came before the good of the individual."

But that doesn’t mean the Red Elephants don’t have some good individuals.

Sims is solid at point guard and has proven he can take a game over. Combine that with the stellar play of George Manomano, and Gainesville has a top-notch backcourt.

"I really like our guards," Cottrell said earlier this year. "They give us a great 1-2 punch."

The Johnson brothers dominate inside, using their athleticism to get critical rebounds and keep possessions alive. At 6-5, Jeffries is a matchup nightmare for most opposing teams, and his 22-point performance against Flowery Branch in the region semifinals helped keep Gainesville on track for the region title.

And then there’s the bench, with guys like Ty Redmon, Boleman, McDuffie, Chris West and Javez Warren providing solid play when the starters need a rest. The majority of those bench players proved they belonged while the football players were still on the gridiron.

"It definitely helped our depth," Cottrell said of the beginning of the year. "A lot of the guys showed us what they can do."

On the court, they showed they could win a region title. Off the court they became a family.

"We’re all close like that," McDuffie said. "We all got each other’s back."

Even if that means crouching down in front of the basket while a teammate jumps over you.

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