Brenda Hill-Gilmore was certain the shot would go in.
On a night when Gainesville High’s Taylor Hawks was being honored for reaching 1,500 points and had scored 30 more, it seemed inevitable. But the senior guard’s potential game-winning 3-pointer fell short of the rim, spoiling her coach’s premonition and what was otherwise a splendid senior night.
The Lady Red Elephants lost 60-56 in a seesaw battle with Region 8-AAAAAA leader Winder-Barrow on Tuesday night. Hawks added six rebounds, five assists and two steals to her gaudy scoring output in the loss for Gainesville (15-7, 6-3 region).
“That’s Taylor Hawks,” Hill-Gilmore said. “She’s just one of those players that knows the game of basketball and, plays it with passion. She’s an unselfish player who just gives us her all every night whenever we step on that floor.”
The Lady Bulldoggs (18-5, 8-0), meanwhile, locked up the regular-season title while again narrowly escaping the second-place Lady Red Elephants. Gainesville forced overtime in the teams’ first meeting Jan. 13 but eventually lost 66-59.
Hill-Gilmore’s team twice rallied from six-point deficits, closing the gap in the final minutes thanks to some streaky shooting from sophomore guard Tija Blackwell (18 points)
But sophomore Chellia Watson, who led Winder-Barrow with 22 points, sank four free throws in the final 20 seconds to seal the win. The Lady Bulldoggs held on despite junior forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa, rated by ESPN as the No. 1 overall player in the Class of 2018, exiting the game late with an apparent knee injury.
“It was two great teams with competitors that are athletic and skilled,” Hill-Gilmore said. “I thought they got some key rebounds and made some free throws, and we missed some opportunities that could have given us a chance to win the ballgame.”
The Lady Red Elephants held a 9-7 lead with about three minutes to play in the first quarter before Winder-Barrow closed the period with an 8-0 run. Nelson-Ododa scored six points during the stretch, which Gainesville aided with three turnovers.
But Hawks, who scored 13 points in the second quarter, reenergized the Lady Red Elephants and cut the deficit to 20-18 by hitting three free throws after getting fouled on a long-range attempt.
She later hit a stepback 3-pointer to knot the score at 23-23 and followed that up with a crafty assist to Blackwell on a backdoor cut that gave Gainesville the lead.
The Lady Red Elephants took a pair of charges late in the first half, and Hawks drilled another 3-pointer to put her team ahead 28-25 at the break. Winder-Barrow then switched its zone defense to man with pressure at the top of the key, holding Hawks to just two points in a third quarter that ended with the Lady Bulldoggs ahead 41-37.
But less than two minutes into the final period, Nelson-Ododa (16 points, 12 rebounds) fell to the court clutching her right knee and crying out in pain after contesting a rebound.
She later limped back to the bench under her own power, and Hill-Gilmore helped her walk to the opposing locker room following the game. Hill-Gilmore got to know the 6-foot-4 forward’s family through her brother during her time coaching at Winder-Barrow.
“So I’m very familiar with her family, and we’ve always remained friends,” the coach said. “She just has a special place in my heart.”
Lady Bulldoggs coach Brandon Thomas said team trainers told him Nelson-Ododa possibly suffered a knee sprain but that her ACL “looked firm.”
Hawks took over the game from there, hitting a reverse layup and completing a 3-point play before assisting one of Blackwell’s trio of 3-pointers in the final period. Coming out of a timeout with the game tied at 56 with 18.2 seconds left, Gainesville fouled Watson, who knocked down both free throws.
“We wanted to foul and get them on the free throw line to give us the ball back and a chance to set up a play and score,” Hill-Gilmore said.
That’s just what the Lady Red Elephants got when Hawks corralled a loose ball and heaved an open shot from beyond the arc. But Watson scooped up the rebound and was fouled again with less than a second left.
Despite her shot coming up just short, Hawks still got to soak in the celebration of senior night along with classmates Tangi Miller and Sydney Payne. She also received a small plaque commemorating her 1,000th point, which she scored against Dacula last Saturday.
“I was hoping she could get about 2,500,” Hill-Gilmore said with a smile. “She’s just one of those true ballers.”
The Lady Red Elephants wrap up their region schedule at Apalachee at 7 p.m. Friday before finishing the regular season at Greater Atlanta Christian on Saturday.
GAINESVILLE BOYS 90, WINDER-BARROW 47: For a few minutes, the Red Elephants had their hands full Tuesday night.
Then, as usual, Gainesville turned this region showdown into a blowout.
After falling behind 10-7 early, the Red Elephants (23-1, 9-0 Region 8-AAAAAA) finished the first quarter on a 20-5 run to coast past the Bulldoggs (9-14, 2-6). Gainesville has won all but one of its region games by at least 26 points this season.
The Red Elephants had already clinched the regular-season region title by defeating Dacula 63-59 last Saturday, but they came out running as smooth as ever against Winder-Barrow.
Junior forward K.J. Buffen tallied 22 points, while classmate Jarred Rosser tacked on 18 points and eight rebounds. Eleven Gainesville players hit a shot in the balanced scoring effort, and sophomore guard Brent Kelly was the only other one to notch double figures (11 points).
Junior guard Jay Griggs hit six 3-pointers in a 23-point outing for the Bulldoggs, followed by senior Terence Butler with 10.
The Red Elephants can finish undefeated in region play when they close the regular season at Apalachee at 8:30 p.m. Friday.