In the waning minutes of Friday night’s Lanierland tournament boys championship game, a cluster of Gainesville High students serenaded coach Benjie Wood with chants of “We love Benjie.”
Wood turned and gave a subtle wink, reciprocating the sudden showing of frivolity from the student section.
It was just that kind of night — and tournament — for the Red Elephants.
Gainesville completed its dominant run to the 57th annual Lanierland title by crushing East Hall 88-38, the team’s third blowout win in as many days. After sitting out last year’s tournament due to a team suspension, the Red Elephants (13-0) defeated their three Lanierland opponents by a combined 112 points.
“We didn’t get to play last year, so we had a little something extra in the tank for this year,” said junior forward Bailey Minor, who was named the boys tournament MVP.
Minor racked up a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds as No. 8 seed Gainesville claimed its first Lanierland championship since 2011, this one on its home court. Wood’s squad won the rebounding battle 47-17 and forced 12 turnovers with its suffocating full-court press.
“Our guys play hard all the time, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Wood said. “Our motto is there are two non-negotiables: effort and attitude. They’re committed to that.”
Unlike their first two Lanierland games, the Red Elephants needed almost an entire half to pull away from the plucky No. 2 seed Vikings (8-6).
Gainesville’s defensive pressure controlled the pace of play, especially in a first quarter that featured a combined 17 fouls. Red Elephants junior forward Jarred Rosser and East Hall junior guard Luke Cooper both had three fouls at the end of the period.
Rosser, however, delivered the first of the his team’s three dunks with a powerful putback midway through the first quarter. And Cooper still made big plays of his own, like the 3-pointer that pulled the Vikings within 21-19 early in the second quarter.
“Give East Hall a lot of credit for the way they came out,” Wood said. “Coach (Joe) Dix has done a wonderful job with his young men, and they came out with a great game plan. They executed it and did a great job of keeping us out of rhythm.”
But that’s when the Red Elephants returned to the form that helped them coast through the first two rounds, finishing the half on a 22-7 run to enter halftime leading 43-26.
Minor completed two 3-point plays during the second quarter, and Gainesville produced a sequence of three straight steals on inbound passes that resulted in easy buckets.
“We’re long, quick and athletic,” Minor said. “Most guards can’t handle that.”
Things didn’t get any better for East Hall after halftime.
The Red Elephants ripped off a 29-4 run during the third quarter, causing many fans in the packed Gainesville High School gym to head for the exits. Junior forward Jarrel Rosser threw down two dunks in the period, the second on an alley-oop from senior guard Michael White (10 points, seven rebounds).
Gainesville outscored East Hall 45-12 in the second half, a remarkable closing surge Wood credited to his team’s depth and defensive pressure.
Jarrel Rosser registered 12 points, while Jarred Rosser put up 11 to match junior guard Xavier Bledson, a member of the boys all-tournament team. Vikings junior guard Deonte Evans also landed on the squad despite scoring just three points Friday night.
Junior guard Luke Cooper was the leading scorer for East Hall, which lost in the Lanierland championship game for the second straight season.
After cruising past defending champion Flowery Branch in the tournament’s opening game, the Red Elephants finished Lanierland on an even more dominant note. Wood — whose team has risen to a No. 1 ranking Class AAAAAA — said that while his players didn’t put too much emphasis on winning Lanierland, it’s an accomplishment to build on as the season progresses.
“Our guys are committed to each other and are committed to what we’re trying to sell,” Wood said. “We wanted to win Lanierland; everyone does. But this is another step. We’re very proud to be Lanierland champions, but we have a long way to go with it.”
LAKEVIEW ACADEMY 68, NORTH HALL 52: The Trojans’ second-half rally came up short as Lakeview Academy held on to win Lanierland’s third-place game.
No. 3 seed North Hall (9-7) cut the deficit to as little as nine points with about three minutes to play, but the No. 5 seed Lions (8-4) sealed the win by hitting their final eight free throws.
Both teams struggled offensively in the first half, and North Hall didn’t score its first points until nearly four minutes into the contest. A nine-point burst over the final three minutes of the second quarter helped the Trojans make it 27-17 at halftime.
Lakeview Academy senior forward Tre Gober (19 points) and junior guard Drew Cottrell (17) hit back-to-back 3-pointers early in the third quarter to extend their team’s lead to 20 points.
North Hall senior guard Evan Easton, however, scored 12 of his game-high 24 points during the period to keep the Trojans in the game. Freshman guard Griffin Neville scored all 10 of his points in the fourth quarter, including a 3-pointer that pulled the Trojans within 60-50.
But Cottrell hit six straight free throws, while senior guard Ryan Lackey provided another two in the final minute.
LANIERLAND ALL-TOURNAMENT BOYS TEAM
Xzavier Reid, West Hall, Sr.
Donovan Hernandez, Chestatee, Jr.
Evan Easton, North Hall, Sr.
Deonte Evans, East Hall, Jr.
Dwayne Wilson, Johnson, Sr.
Josh Randolph, Lakeview Academy, Sr.
Brannon Clark, Flowery Branch, Sr.
Xavier Bledson, Gainesville, Jr.
Bailey Minor, Gainesville, Jr.