Gainesville senior Shaquan Cantrell spent the final minutes of the third quarter unable to even watch Wednesday night’s first round state tournament game at Gainesville High.
Instead, he stood off in the corner of the gym as trainers worked to bandage a nearly inch-long laceration he suffered after he and a Hiram player bumped heads during the tight contest. To keep up with the game, he listened to the cues from the crowd.
“I was just going off the crowd’s reaction,” he said. “Every time the crowd got loud, I was asking what happened.”
Some teams wouldn’t have survived even a short absence of one of their leaders so late in a close state tournament game.
But Gainesville has the depth to do just that.
Cantrell returned in the fourth, albeit with a new uniform to replace his blood-stained original, but it was junior Deshaun Watson who took over at the end, grabbing a key rebound, hitting a pair of free throws and grabbing a final steal to seal a 70-67 win for Gainesville.
The No. 1-seed Red Elephants (20-9) will host Mays in the second round on Saturday. Game time is still to be determined.
It’s the first time anyone on the current roster has been past the first round. So for Cantrell, who scored a team-high 21 points, going back in was the only option.
“It’s my senior year,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let a busted eye keep me out.”
Cantrell fed Watson, who scored seven of the team’s final eight points and 17 total, behind the 3-point line for a key trey to put Gainesville up 65-61 with under three minutes remaining, and also hit a key free throw with 1:00 remaining to put Gainesville ahead 68-65.
But Gainesville needed just about every player to provide something on a night that, at times, it seemed No. 4-seed Hiram (16-13) couldn’t miss.
“We’ve got a special group,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said. “I imagine the cut did bother (Cantrell), but I think that’s the advantage of having a lot of depth.
“The next guy stepped up, just like its been all year.”
The coach mentioned guard Jikeese Ruff as being key on defense, and forward Caleb Hayman scored 12 points, 10 in the second half. Chase England, who added nine points, recorded the crucial defensive play of the game, jumping up to put a hand in the face of Hiram’s Leonard Foster on a potential go-ahead jumper with under 10 seconds remaining, with Gainesville ahead 68-67.
Foster, who scored 14 points, 10 in the final quarter, had to let loose an off-angle shot that bounced off the rim and into the hands of Watson, who was fouled and made both ends of a one-and-one at the free throw line. On Hiram’s final possession, Watson leaped to deflect a long pass down court to seal the win.
“He’s proven it in football and in basketball,” Cottrell said of Watson. “He can make the big plays, just like all of our guys.”
It’s no surprise then that Watson liked having the game not decided until the final play. Gainesville looked to be running away with it after going ahead 29-16 after the opening quarter, but Hiram tightened it up quickly in the second quarter, and the game stayed close the rest of the way.
“I was expecting them to push us the whole way,” Watson said. “I like games like that.”
The junior did say he would have liked to see the Red Elephants keep the lead a little better.
The hosts led by as much as 13 points after hitting five 3-pointers in the first quarter, in addition to two more old-fashioned 3-point plays by Cantrell, who had 12 first-quarter points. The quarter included a 13-0 run by Gainesville, capped off by a Luke Moore 3-pointer after an assist by Jikeese Ruff, to turn a 14-14 game into a double-digit advantage.
Gainesville never again relinquished the lead, but Hiram stayed alive, opening the second quarter on a 12-2 run to get right back in it.
Gainesville briefly opened up a nine-point lead late in the second, but Hiram scored the last five points of the half, including Reed Dungan’s second 3-pointer of the game, to enter the half down just four at 39-35.
The second half was close the whole way, with each side going on small runs before being brought back by the other. Cantrell went out with 2:03 left in third after he and Dungan (10 points), who also left briefly with a cut on the head, banged heads.
Foster took advantage of Cantrell’s absence, sinking a layup on the next possession to cut Gainesville’s lead to one, but Hayman responded with a put-back dunk.
After another Foster layup, guard Luke Maddox fed Hayman for a layup. Hayman was fouled, made the basket and the free throw to put Gainesville ahead 52-48 after three quarters.
“I was real proud of our guys down the stretch,” Cottrell said.
In all, Gainesville hit seven 3-pointers and four more traditional three-point plays, including a second by Hayman earlier in the fourth quarter.
The Red Elephants also finished 14 of 20 from the free-throw line.
Hiram, who was led by Isaac Williams (23 points), went 18 of 20 from the free-throw line, a large reason as to why the Hornets refused to go away.
“I think they’re better than a four seed,” Cottrell said of Gainesville’s first-ever Class AAAAA state opponent.
For Cantrell, the win was what mattered, regardless of how close it came. He hardly even felt the cut above his eye.
“I didn’t even really feel it,” he said afterward, a bandage keeping the blood away. “But the win feels great.”