CARNESVILLE — With his team holding its largest lead of the game late in the third quarter, North Hall coach Benjie Wood implored his team: “Don’t let up.”
The Trojans’ effort never wavered, but neither did Gainesville’s.
The Red Elephants scratched, clawed, scraped and ultimately shot its way to a 72-69 win Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the Region 8-AAA tournament at Franklin County High.
The win puts Gainesville (18-7) back in the state playoffs after a quarterfinal upset in last year’s region tournament left the Red Elephants sitting at home. Gainesville will play Franklin County in the semifinals at 8:30 tonight at Chestatee High.
The loss ends a disappointing season for North Hall (16-11), a year after a run to the state semifinals.
“This was two good teams playing hard,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said. “It’s a shame someone had to lose.”
With a minute left in the third quarter, it looked like that team would be the Red Elephants. With 59 seconds left in the period, North Hall senior Hamilton Harper drilled his third 3-pointer of the game, staking the Trojans to a 56-43 lead. It was North Hall’s eighth 3-pointer of the game, but it was the last one that would go down until the game’s final 10 seconds.
In the first half, North Hall induced a frenetic pace with full-court, high-energy defense. The result was 18 turnovers and crippling foul trouble for the Red Elephants.
But in the game’s deciding moments, the roles reversed.
Gainesville forced North Hall into 11 fourth-quarter turnovers as it whittled away at the double-digit deficit, then took the lead for good by sinking 13 of 18 free throws in the fourth quarter, including seven straight in the final minute.
“All year this has been a resilient team,” Cottrell said. “We knew North Hall had been coming along lately, and they played very well tonight. They hit a ton of big shots and we were a little bit frustrated to be behind because we were playing well, too. We just kept fighting.”
In the fourth quarter, the clutch shots that seemed to come so easy for North Hall for the better part of three quarters suddenly quit falling. On their way to a 10-point lead, the Trojans hit 8 of 15 3-pointers, but in the fourth quarter, they missed their first seven.
“We were getting good looks,” Wood said. “The shots just quit going in. That’s basketball.”
Meanwhile, the Red Elephants chipped away.
After relatively quiet nights, guard Tray Harrison and post A.J. Johnson combined for 11 points in the fourth quarter. However, the biggest offensive contributor down the stretch was reserve combo guard Javez Warren, who scored six of his 16 points in the final two minutes.
The junior gave the Red Elephants their first lead of the second half when he gathered an errant inbound pass and went the distance for a layup with 1:40 left. He then hit all four of his free throws in the final minute.
“I knew we had to close it out and get to state,” Warren said. “We just had to play through the mess and get the win, and that’s what we did.”
Though the Trojans never led after Warren’s layup, they had their chances.
Amin Abdul-Aziz cut the lead to one with 49 seconds left, and an Ethan Smith 3-pointer cut the lead to two with eight seconds remaining.
“I’m so proud of these kids,” Wood said. “These guys stuck together through a lot of adversity this year, and they did it with class and character. I couldn’t be more proud of every single member of this team.”
Smith and Chris Barnes led North Hall with 17 points apiece, while Abul-Aziz added 12.
Shaquan Cantrell matched Warren with 16 points to lead Gainesville, while Sadler added 10.
The Red Elephants don’t have much time to savor the win. Franklin County, which Gainesville defeated 63-58 in overtime earlier this season, awaits.
“The good thing is we’re able to go back to state,” Cottrell said. “That was one of our goals. We’re going to enjoy this one then see if we can come out and play well again (tonight).”