Offensively, it wasn’t exactly vintage Gainesville basketball. Three-pointers missed their mark, floaters in the lane rimmed out, and the half-court game never appeared to be in sync.
In short, it was ugly.
But defensively, it was a beauty to behold, and it was exactly the kind of game the Red Elephants thrive on.
Gainesville cranked up the intensity in the last 90 seconds on Saturday, wiping out a four-point deficit with a frenetic full-court press and edging visiting Mays, 41-40, in the second round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs.
With the win, their 13th straight, the Red Elephants (21-9) will advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2009 and will host the New Manchester/Stephenson winner Wednesday.
In addition to lock-down defense, the other similarity Saturday’s win had to Gainesville’s previous 12 in a row were the key contributions from players throughout the roster.
In the first half, it was Reed Tipton stepping off the bench and calmly drilling a 3-pointer to keep the Red Elephants in striking distance. Or it was Luke Maddox coming up with a steal and dishing to Chase England for a much-needed bucket underneath.
And down the stretch, it was Jikeese Ruff, a senior, providing two key offensive rebounds, a steal, a put-back bucket and one free throw to spur the rally.
“Someone’s stepping up,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said. “It’s someone different every time, and I’m just proud of them. They’re showing a lot of heart, aren’t they? It was a tough game, a tough defensive game on both sides and shots were hard to get.
“That’s what makes this team really special. (Tipton) hadn’t played in a couple of games and he stayed ready and got his opportunity tonight and made a big shot for us. (Ruff), he’s played well for us all year and made the plays in a big moment again. I’m just proud of them; I could talk about all of them.”
The Red Elephants needed every contribution they got on a night when they shot just 29 percent from the field and made just 5 of 28 3-pointers.
With 1:30 left in the game, and Mays holding a 40-36 lead after rallying from a nine-point, third quarter deficit, the mood in the Gainesville gym was low.
“You could hear it in the crowd,” Gainesville senior Shaquan Cantrell said. “The air had just been sucked out.”
Deshaun Watson breathed life into the Red Elephants when he flew into the lane for an offensive rebound and a put-back, Gainesville’s first bucket in more than six minutes.
From there, Ruff took over, first getting a steal on the press, then snagging an offensive rebound, getting fouled, and converting 1 of 2 free throws to cut the Mays lead to 40-39.
Following another Red Elephant steal in the backcourt, and a subsequent missed shot, Ruff grabbed another board and scored in the lane to put Gainesville back in front, 41-40 with 41 seconds remaining.
Then it was Watson’s turn.
The junior is one of the Gainesville’s most dynamic scorers, but struggled against Mays, hitting just 2 of 13 from the field and missing all eight of his 3-point attempts. But in an effort representative of the Red Elephants’ night, Watson thwarted the Raiders’ last two scoring opportunities, hustling back after the press was broken for a two-handed shot block and then ripping away the rebound after Mays’ final shot just rolled off the rim and securing possession by maintaining his dribble and getting fouled.
“It came down to the seniors,” senior guard Tray Harrison said. “We were only guaranteed four more quarters, so myself and some of the other seniors just kept preaching defense. Defense is the key. You play defense, you get stops, and all we needed was one more stop and we just executed.”
That preaching paid off Saturday as it has throughout the second half of the season for Gainesville, which lost six of its first seven games while awaiting numerous members of the football team to complete their run to the state title. The Red Elephants forced Mays into 15 turnovers, including five in the fourth quarter, and held the Raiders (21-7) to their second-lowest point total of the season on 38 percent shooting.
“We’ve played really good defense over the last month or so,” Cottrell said, “and I think it’s a tribute to our guys, because they’ve sold out on trying to play good defense, and we made some stops when we had to.”
The Red Elephants trailed for much of the first half, but surged ahead in the second half with an 11-0 run. When Cantrell finished a fast break with a thunderous two-handed dunk to give Gainesville a 32-25 lead midway through the third quarter the momentum was clearly with the home team, and when Watson followed with a pair of free throws, it appeared the Red Elephants were off and running.
But the Raiders chipped away slowly, regaining the lead early in the fourth quarter and stretching it to a four-point lead when Lundy Lugman completed a three-point play with 2:30 left in the game.
Those were the last points the Red Elephants allowed.
“We knew we had to fly around and make plays,” Cantrell said. “We’re so athletic and we’re so long, we knew we could get our hands on the ball and possibly cause a turnover.
“Throughout the team, from the coaches to the players, we just never give up. It’s basketball. Anything can happen in 90 seconds, so we just believed in each other and made plays.”
Cantrell led Gainesville with 15 points on 6 of 13 shooting — below his season average, but a much-needed performance in a game when points were so tough to come by. Watson added six points, and none of the other seven Red Elephants who scored registered more than three.
Jalen Smith led Mays with 14 points, followed by Lugman with seven.