It’s been three years since the Gainesville boys basketball program has advanced to the state quarterfinals, but this year’s team doesn’t have to look far to find personnel with extensive playoff experience.
It starts at the top with first-year head coach Todd Cottrell, who coached the Flowery Branch Falcons to the quarterfinals last season, and it ends with the six players on the roster who reached the quarterfinals in football just four months ago.
That playoff experience will come into play tonight as the Red Elephants (20-8) take on Cedartown (21-9) at the Northwest Trade Convention Center in Dalton.
“Losing in that round was horrible,” said Nick Johnson, who played tight end on the Red Elephants’ football team. “I’m not too fond of losing, that’s the last thing on my mind. We gotta go out there and bust our butts and try to win.”
Johnson, as well as fellow senior Juwon Jeffries said that comparing the two sports was difficult, but it will help that they have the experience of playing in a high-pressure atmosphere.
“It helps because your mindset is ready,” said Jeffries, who played wide receiver for the Red Elephants and is the basketball team’s third leading scorer at 8.8 points per game. “You know what’s coming: the adrenaline, the crowd ... knowing that will help me focus before the game.”
The focus will also be on making it to Macon, the site of the Class AAA semifinals.
“It’s a really big game, especially for us seniors,” said George Manomano, who leads the team with 17.3 ppg. “We don’t want this to be our last game. We’re really trying to get this win so we can go to Macon.”
Standing in the Red Elephants’ way is Cedartown, a team that advanced to the quarterfinals by defeating North Hall 54-50 on Wednesday.
The Bulldogs are led by a trio of seniors that average double-digit scoring: Brandon Brown (19.8 ppg), Dewayne Jupiter (12.3 ppg) and Dion Smith (11.3 ppg). Gainesville only has two players averaging double figures in Manomano and Blake Sims, who’s averaging 12 points per game but is coming off a 19-point performance against Eastside in Round 2.
“They’re very athletic, and they’re in the quarterfinals for a reason,” Cottrell said of the Bulldogs. “We’ve got to go out and play the best that we can and see what happens.”
While a trip to the final four is on the line, Cottrell said his team is still loose and focused.
“The attitude of this team is fantastic,” he said. “They understand what they have to do and they understand what they are playing for. But they also understand what happens, happens, and they can control what they can control.
“We don’t want to make it bigger than it is,” he added. “It’s a basketball game, and hopefully we can win and play next week.”
If Gainesville is playing next week it will be in large part due to its defense. The Red Elephants haven’t surrendered more than 50 points to an opponent since Johnson scored 62 on Feb. 13, and they have won their first two playoff games by an average margin of 22 points.
Even with those results, the players are not getting complacent.
“You don’t want to go into the next game thinking you’re that good and slack up on the other team because they’re just as good as we are,” Johnson said. “We gotta play extra hard and go up a level every game.”
One more level and Gainesville will be in Macon.