Midway through the first quarter, Gainesville senior George Manomano lost control of the ball, dove into a pack of two Druid Hills’ players and forced a jump ball.
At the time it didn’t mean much, but it proved how much Gainesville wanted to win.
With that desire, plus a tough defense that forced 23 turnovers (14 via steals), the Red Elephants cruised to a 60-39 win over the Red Devils in the second round of the Class AAA state tournament Wednesday at Gainesville.
“This is very serious,” Manomano said of his mentality in the playoffs. “I told this team a long time ago that this is not just a game, this is my life. I’m trying to get to a state championship.”
He and the rest of his teammates are now just two games away from reaching that goal, with their next game coming against Cedartown in the quarterfinals Saturday in Dalton.
If the Red Elephants (20-8) play like they did Wednesday, reaching the Class AAA semifinals — and ultimately the state title game — is well within their reach. Especially if they get the type of performance from Blake Sims that they did against Druid Hills (22-9).
Sims led all scorers with 19 points, including two dunks, the second jam coming late in the fourth quarter when Sims put it down over Druid Hills guard Marcel Baugn.
“I wasn’t expecting him to come up with me,” Sims said of the dunk. “But he did, and I was able to finish.”
Just like he was able to finish his first dunk with 1:50 left to go in the first quarter that gave his team a six-point lead. And while the dunks certainly brought the crowd to their feet, his playmaking ability made the difference. Like in the second quarter when he stole the ball, was heading out of bounds, yet was able to throw a long pass to Manomano, who flipped the ball behind his back to Juwon Jeffries for an easy layup.
“You can’t teach that stuff,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said of that play.
Nor can you teach the play where he drove through the lane, put the ball around his back and layed it in to put his team up 11 at the end of the third.
“Blake went off tonight,” said Manomano, who finished with 11 points, five rebounds and four assists. “I knew he had it in him, and I’ve been waiting for it to come out.”
According to Sims, it’s the playoff atmosphere that brings out the best in him.
“When it comes down to steppin’ up, I’m a playmaker and I like to step up in big games,” said Sims, who also had six assists and five steals. “I play my heart out for this team, and they play their heart out for me.”
That was evident throughout Wednesday’s contest with Druid Hills.
Whether it was A.J. or Nick Johnson getting critical offensive rebounds and put backs, or Jeffries (12 points, four steals) draining a 3-pointer to spark a 7-0 run in the second quarter, Gainesville used its heart and determination to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2006.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Cottrell said. “This year is certainly different than year’s past, but I really like the way this team is playing now.”
Especially on defense, which was the key to a 10-0 run to start the second half that allowed Gainesville to build a 14-point lead.
“(Druid Hills) did a couple things that we haven’t seen in a while,” said Cottrell, whose team became just the third Class AAA team to defeat the Red Devils this season. “Our defense was really good coming out of the third quarter. These guys continue to amaze me.”
On Wednesday, few were as amazing as Sims, whose dunk over Baugn in the fourth quarter gave his team a 20-point lead.
Despite the point disparity, Cottrell said he never really felt comfortable during the game.
“It felt close,” he said. “That’s a very good basketball team.”
They just weren’t as good as Gainesville.