Last season, the Gainesville boys basketball team was at its best at Lanierland, beating Johnson and North Hall to reach the finals, where the talented Red Elephants rolled an East Hall team bound for the second round of the playoffs by 30 points take the title.
This season, the 53rd annual Lanierland basketball tournament — which tips off at 10 a.m. today at Gainesville High and features nearly all of the Hall County schools — will be the first chance for the entire Red Elephants team to play together again.
The chance will likely come Tuesday as three of Gainesville’s starters were at the Georgia Dome with the Red Elephants football team competing for a state title Friday night.
“It’s a good problem to have — not many players have the opportunity to play in the state championship,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said. “It’s unrealistic to expect them to be able to play (today); hopefully by Tuesday (Dec. 18), but there are a lot of factors.”
Gainesville (0-4), the No. 1 seed on the boys bracket by virtue of being the defending champs, opens the tournament at 8:30 tonight against No. 8 seed Chestatee.
If the Red Elephants can get a win over an improved, fast-paced War Eagles squad, they would likely have Deshaun Watson, Chase England and Caleb Hayman, as well as a few more bench players, back on the court for the second round Friday.
Cottrell said he’s not too worried about them being ready to play, but that conditioning for basketball and the unique skill set for the game may take a little while to get back. In the meantime, younger players have had more of a chance to shine. Those younger players along with star forward Shaquan Cantrell will look to get Gainesville past the first round and hopefully back to the title game Nov. 22 at North Hall High.
On the girls side, Flowery Branch could have hardly started faster, racing out to a 7-0 record. The Lady Falcons will enter Lanierland looking to continue the fast start in the tournament where they have had trouble doing just that. Last season the team lost the first two games and finished 1-2.
The East Hall girls beat North Hall in the title game last season, but both teams lost a number of key seniors to graduation and enter this year’s event with much different looks.
“Since I’ve been here we haven’t played very well in the Lanierland,” Flowery Branch coach Hazel Hall said. “We have been slow starters each season, and have played better after Christmas and not before. This season we have gotten off to a good start, but we are still trying to work some younger players into the lineup and we are trying to get a feel for what areas each of our players can contribute.
“We have talked about Lanierland a little bit, but not much since we had to jump into our region schedule the first game of the season. That has been our main focus. But our players do think that it is important, and want to play well. We try to play hard, improve and win each time we step on the court, so our approach won’t change.”
The No. 5 Lady Falcons, who won their only Lanierland title in 2002, play No. 4 Gainesville in the tournament opener at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Both Flowery Branch and Gainesville in Region 8-AAAAA are already well into region schedules, which started unusually early due to the straight region set up. With region standings determining region tournament seeding, it’s become more important than ever for the teams to be ready to play early.
The Lakeview Academy boys also look ready to play, and they have the added confidence boost of having already beaten their first Lanierland opponent, North Hall, 50-47, earlier this season.
No. 5 Lakeview plays No. 4 North Hall at 11:30 a.m. today.
The Lions, who had their best tournament showing last season — going 2-1 — are looking to make an even bigger splash this time around with one of the area’s top centers in 6-foot-8 Austin Montgomery and a host of talented guards.
“We’re trying to show that a small private school can do well in the county, not just the big public schools,” Montgomery said. “We’re excited.”
Notes: All 16 teams, eight girls and eight boys, will play Saturday at Gainesville in Round 1. ... After a couple of years not playing in the event, the Lakeview girls are back, making this edition of the tournament once again a purely Hall County affair, with all county teams except for Riverside Military involved.