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March to Macon: Westover beats Gainesville 59-56
Gainesville High's Red Elephants take on Westover in the AAA semifinals at the Macon Centreplex.

MACON — A loss that comes as a result of controllable factors is a difficult loss.

That loss coming in the state semifinals makes it even more difficult.

“We turned the ball over one too many times, didn’t convert on one too many easy baskets and missed one too many free throws,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said of his team’s 59-56 loss to Westover in the state semifinals Friday night in Macon.

“When you get (to Macon) you learn a lot. We did as coaches and hopefully this team will stay hungry.”

The Red Elephants (21-9) held a six-point lead midway through the second quarter before Westover’s offense converted on three straight Gainesville turnovers to tie the game at 21.

The same scenario played out late in the third quarter.

Up 35-32 with two minutes remaining, Gainesville turned the ball over two straight times and once again the Patriots (27-6) capitalized, taking a one-point lead by scoring on their two resulting possessions.

“We turned the ball over in clutch situations which is uncharacteristic of us,” Cottrell said. “We simply let them back in it.”

Gainesville looked poised for a place in the state championship at the start of the game despite not hitting its first field goal until the three-minute mark.

Nick Johnson led the way scoring and Juwon Jeffries did his part rebounding to help Gainesville build a four-point lead by the end of the first.

Nick Johnson had five of Gainesville’s 15 first-quarter points while Jeffries had four and five rebounds.

Jeffries finished as the team’s second-leading scorer for the night with 16 points, George Manomano added 11 points for the Red Elephants.

The Red Elephants extended their lead to six at the start of the second quarter on an A.J. Johnson offensive rebound and putback, and were able to sustain that lead until the turnover bug bit with four minutes to go in the half.

Westover finished the half on a 9-2 run to take a one-point lead into the third quarter.

Despite the shift in momentum, Gainesville came out in the third quarter firing, and it paid off.

Down by three at 26-23, Jeffries and Nick Johnson once again provided a spark.

Jeffries hit his first and only 3-pointer of the game and Nick Johnson grabbed an offensive rebound and converted on the putback to start an 8-0 Gainesville run that gave it a five-point lead.

That lead would be short lived as Westover’s constant full-court pressure and quickness got the better of the Red Elephants and resulted in back-to-back turnovers.

The Patriots converted on the extra possessions care of the free-throw line, where they shot 65 percent to Gainesville’s 60 for the game.

First Greg Green hit two straight free throws and then Dontreal Hicks, after being fouled while shooting a 3-pointer, hit two more to give Westover a 36-35 lead.

Hicks led nine Westover scorers with a game-high 23 points. Green finished with 12 points for the Patriots.

Jeffries tied it at 36 by hitting 1-of-2 free throws of his own before Hicks hit a reverse layup as the buzzer sounded to give Westover a two-point lead.

It was a lead the Patriots would not relinquish despite the best efforts of Gainesville’s Blake Sims.

The junior point guard brought his team within one with six minutes to go in the game on a steal and layup. After Westover took an eight-point lead with just under two minutes to go in the game, Sims hit four straight free throws and caused a jump ball resulting in a Gainesville possession to bring his team back.

“We always believe,” Cottrell said. “That’s been a strength of this team all season.”

Sims scored 14 of his team-high 17 points in the third quarter, including back-to-back pullup 3-pointers in the waning seconds to keep Westover’s margin of victory within three points.

“We did some things this season that nobody but the people in the locker room thought we could do,” Cottrell said. “We’ve truly been blessed by God.

“There are so many great things that happened from day one and hopefully in a week or so we’ll get past the hurt.”

Gainesville loses seniors Jeffries, Manomano, D.J. Allen, Brock Boleman, D.J. McDuffie and Nick Johnson; but for Jeffries the legacy left by his class will be the good memory that comes out of the state semifinals.

“This whole season was a great experience,” Jeffries said. “Coming to Macon was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m proud of that.”

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