KENNESAW — It’s been the story of Gainesville’s season, and especially so in the playoffs: razor-thin margins for error, a different hero seemingly every night, and most importantly, an awful lot of wins.
Even with the heightened stakes and in an unfamiliar environment, the Red Elephants showed they’re comfortable with that script, taking a thrilling 63-62 win over Effingham County on Saturday night in the Class AAAAA state semifinals.
Gainesville (23-9) will meet Miller Grove in the state championship game at 8:45 p.m. Friday in Macon, and they’ve got senior Tray Harrison to thank for the trip.
With time dwindling and the Red Elephants trailing by one, the diminutive point guard blew by his defender, found a wide-open lane, and finished with a left-handed layup that put Gainesville in front and sent the red-clad crowd into a frenzy with 2.4 seconds left.
Effingham County (27-5) called a timeout to set up one final play, but couldn’t get a shot off before the buzzer sounded.
It ended an run for the Rebels that was nothing short of dominant through the first three rounds of the playoffs. Prior to Saturday, Effingham County had been winning by an average of 29 points per game in the postseason.
Gainesville, by contrast, hadn’t won by more than three.
“I was just glad to be on the court,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said. “I felt like if we could keep it close we’d have a shot, but boy, they hit us hard early. I’m just proud of our guys’ resilience. We hung in there until the end and made a shot.
“We’ve kind of done that all year. Very little has been easy for this group.”
This one certainly wasn’t. The Red Elephants trailed 9-0 after Effingham County point guard Jay Wright fed Jakeenan Gant for an alley oop early in the first quarter, and had to fight from behind again late in the game.
Each time, Gainesville answered the challenge.
The Red Elephants slowly wiped away the early deficit and took the lead at halftime as Shaquan Cantrell dished to the corner and Chase England sank a 3-pointer at the second-quarter buzzer.
Late in the game, it was England again coming up with a big play to help Gainesville rally.
With Effingham County holding a 62-61 lead, the Rebels broke Gainesville’s press, and Gant, a 6-foot-8 forward considered one of the top juniors in the country, was bearing down on the rim. England was all that stood in his way.
“I was just thinking, if I foul him, he’s going to get the and-1, because he’s a great player,” England said. “So just stepped over and took it in the chest, and they gave me the call. Anybody on this team would’ve done the same thing.”
The charging foul on Gant thwarted Effingham County’s chance to pad its lead and the Rebels missed another opportunity later, missing a pair of free throws that set up Harrison’s game-winning bucket.
Prior to that, it was a game of wild momentum swings.
After overtaking the Rebels shortly before halftime, Gainesville continued to pull away, and led by as many as 11 in the third quarter. Then things began to swing in Effingham’s direction.
The Rebels clawed their way back into the game and wiped out what remained of the Red Elephant lead when Gainesville’s Deshaun Watson was called for a technical foul, Gant sank both ensuing free throws, and TJ Johnson drilled a 3-pointer to complete the five-point swing.
Effingham County regained the lead and led by as many as four with three minutes remaining, but Gainesville’s poise was reclaimed when Watson atoned with a spirit-lifting 3-pointer from the wing.
“We know that in playoff basketball, teams are going to make runs,” said Cantrell. “We just had to keep our composure and keep doing what we did to get the lead, and when we get the lead, we’ve got to play smarter.”
Cantrell was the leader for Gainesville with 17 points, and Watson scored 14. But vital contributions were again provided throughout the roster, whether it was England’s clutch moments, Caleb Hayman’s seven points and crucial rebounding off the bench, or a couple of key baskets from Luke Maddox when points were tough to come by.
When this game is remembered, however, it will likely be Harrison who stands out. He scored seven of his nine points in the final 4:30, including a key 3-pointer, and two buckets in the final minute when he began to exploit the quickness advantage he held over his defender.
“He kept trying to make me go right,” Harrison said, “so I just did a little in-and-out move and he opened up so big on the right and gave me the left, so I just took it.”
And when he saw the lane open up in front of him?
“I saw glory,” Harrison said. “But most of all, I had to concentrate on my layup, because I knew if I missed it, I would be the talk of the town.”
Gant led all scorers with 29 points, while Wright added 16 for Effingham County.