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Gainesville faces big challenge in state basketball finals
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Gainesville High coach Todd Cottrell speaks with Deshaun Watson courtside during the Red Elephants’ win over Effingham County in the state semi-finals at Kennesaw State University on Saturday.

State basketball championship

Class AAAAA

Gainesville boys vs. Miller Grove

Where: Macon Centreplex

When: 8:45 p.m. Friday

Cost: $10

TV: GPB

Radio: 550-AM, 102.9-FM

Gainesville was winning state basketball championships long before Miller Grove was even in existence.

But, since the program’s start in 2005, the Wolverines have won four.

The Red Elephants’ challenge is to keep them from winning a fifth straight when the two teams meet at 8:45 p.m. Friday at the Macon Centreplex.

As Tucker coach James Hartry can attest, it won’t be an easy task for Gainesville (23-9). The Tigers, also from Region 6-AAAAA, played Region 6 champs Miller Grove (29-3) twice in the regular season and again in the state quarterfinals, where they kept it close until the end, falling 60-55.

“Their key this year is that they play hard — they don’t take plays off, they get out and they run,” Hartry said. “They’re really decent players, and (coach Sharman) White’s been there four times, and he knows how to prepare them and get them ready.

“Are the players cocky and arrogant? Yes, but they have the right to be cocky and arrogant.”

But it is a different Wolverines team than in the past, and the clearest sign is that four-year starter Tony Parker, who helped the team win the last four titles, is now a freshman at UCLA.

This year’s team doesn’t have the same height advantage without the 6-foot-9 Parker — Hartry said the tallest starter is around 6-6, so Hartry says they win with their speed, running four guards on the court.

“They don’t like running half court sets,” he said. “They’re not the best defensive team, but they like jumping you, they like trapping you.”

Hartry said he was able to keep it close in their state quarterfinal meeting by making Miller Grove slow it down and run out of the half court, instead of getting the easy transition baskets.

Since slower games often make for closer games, it might not be such a bad strategy for Gainesville, which has a history of winning close this season.

While Miller Grove has outscored its state tournament opponents by an average of 20 points, 71-51, including a 72-38 rout of Northside Warner-Robins in the semifinals, Gainesville largest margin of victory during the state tournament was a 70-67 win over Hiram in the opening round. The Red Elephants beat Effingham County 63-62 on a Tray Harrison layup at the buzzer.

Gainesville senior and leading scorer Shaquan Cantrell said his team’s familiarity with winning close games could come in handy, but a similarly senior-led Miller Grove squad should be as good in a close game.

“I think its in our advantage, but they have a senior-led team too,” Cantrell said. “It’s Miller Grove; Miller Grove always has talent every year.

“Hopefully we can shock the world.”

It’d certainly be an upset — Miller Grove just moved into the top-25 for Max Preps’ national rankings, while Gainesville entered the state tournament unranked in Class AAAAA.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Gainesville senior forward Chase England, for one, is confident going into his matchup with the Wolverines’ post player, even if he knows it won’t be easy.

“I’ve played AAU with the guy (6-5 forward James Walker), he’s a good rebounder, good defender, but not the big scorer,” the 6-3 England said. “It’s a big challenge for me and Caleb (Hayman).”

The 6-2 Hayman, a capable post in his own right and part of the depth that has helped the team get to this point, doesn’t mind the height disadvantage against Walker, who had a team-high 10 rebounds against Tucker.

“I’ve been handling taller players a lot this season,” he said.

As for Miller Grove’s speedy guards, including junior point guard Keith Pinckney (averaging 14 points per game) and senior shooting guard Earl Bryant (13 ppg), the challenge of guarding them falls to Gainesville’s host of capable perimeter players, led by Cantrell (19 points per game) and junior Deshaun Watson (12 ppg). The two Red Elephants led the team in scoring in the win over Effingham County, finishing with 17 and 14 points, respectively.

Also key on the perimeter for Gainesville are sharpshooting senior Luke Moore, defensive specialist Jikeese Ruff, and point guards Harrison and Luke Maddox, among others.

“Everybody brings something,” Red Elephants coach Todd Cottrell said of his squad.

And it’s all hands on deck against one of the state’s best.

“(The Wolverines) do everything well,” Cottrell said. “They shoot well, defend well, and each knows their role.

“You have to play your best to beat them, but you should be playing your best game in your last one.”

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