MACON — In a season that may not soon be forgotten, the Gainesville boys basketball team likely would have preferred the final game to be a little more memorable.
The Red Elephants capped off a Cinderella-like turnaround to their 2012-2013 season with a 61-57 loss to Miller Grove in the Class AAAAA state finals on Friday at the Macon Centerplex in Macon.
Gainesville began the season with a 1-6 record while several key players wrapped up football season with their own state championship on the gridiron, only to end up back in a state title game.
No one could’ve imagined in December that the Red Elephants would make such a quick turnaround and advance to the state finals, winning 15 straight games and surviving several close calls throughout the playoffs on the way.
No one except coach Todd Cottrell, that is.
“That’s a credit to those guys, because they’re all competitors,” Cottrell said. “It’s just a matter of getting everybody together and doing something with them.
“We got better at the right time of year. I just wish we could play better (in the finals). I thought we played well enough to win. We just didn’t make enough points.”
Through two quarters, it looked as if Gainesville might have had just enough tenacity to pull off the upset over Miller Grove (30-3), which has now won five straight state championships.
The Red Elephants led 25-19 at halftime, seemingly unfazed by the Wolverines’ stout record and a history of success.
Gainesville turned a 14-11 first-quarter deficit into something much more positive in the second, outscoring Miller Grove 14-5 to secure the halftime lead.
“These guys aren’t intimidated of anything,” Cottrell said. “I can’t even intimidate them with running or anything like that.”
But intimidation was one thing. Backing it up with solid play was another.
The Wolverines roared back with 22 points in the third quarter, controlling the glass and forcing turnovers to take a 41-39 lead into the final quarter of play.
Gainesville continued to fight back, taking its final lead of the night when Luke Moore hit a 3-pointer to give the Red Elephants a 47-45 lead with 6:08 left to play.
Miller Grove answered with a quick 9-2 run to jump ahead 54-49, and Gainesville responded accordingly by scoring four straight (all by Chase England) to trail by one with just over a minute left to play.
Gainesville continued to threaten the Wolverines down to the buzzer. Shaquan Cantrell, playing in his final game for the Red Elephants, made a pair of free throws with 27.3 seconds left to cut Miller Grove’s lead to 59-57.
They couldn’t get another shot to fall, and a final basket by Alterique Gilbert secured the win for the Wolverines.
“We still had chances,” Cottrell said. “We still the ball in our hands right there in the last couple of minutes, but we couldn’t find a way to make a play.”
Cantrell finished his Gainesville career with a team-high 19 points, going 8 for 15 from the field.
The North Georgia signee added a eight rebounds.
“That’s why he’s good,” Cottrell said. “They did a great job on him in the first half — he didn’t get very many looks at all. In the second half he made some things happen in transition.”
Luke Moore scored 13 and Deshaun Watson added 12 for the Red Elephants. Both players had eight points to lead their team in the first half.
Gainesville was the better shooting team in all three areas of the court, but Miller Grove did its damage by forcing 15 turnovers while holding itself to just nine.
The Wolverines were also dominant off the glass in the second half, outrebounding the Red Elephants 20-15. Gainesville had 36 total rebounds on the night, with England pulling down 10 for a team high.
“I think that was the ball game,” Cottrell said. “We knew we had to keep them off the glass.”
Gilbert, one of only two Miller Grove freshmen, led his team with 19 points. Earl Bryant added 13 and Keith Pickney chipped in 14. Despite the win, the Wolverines were 0 for 10 from the 3-point line.
Miller Grove has won five straight state titles.