A.J. Johnson’s fifth offensive rebound may have been his most important one.
With his brother Nick at the free-throw line, and Gainesville leading Johnson 54-49, the sophomore forward out-leaped every Johnson player to grab the missed free throw and securing the Red Elephants’ victory.
“A.J. was tremendous,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said after his team’s 59-49 win Thursday in the second round of the Region 7-AAA boys basketball tournament at Gainesville High. “His intensity... his hustle... that big rebound off the missed free throw... he played great tonight.”
The win advances Gainesville (15-8) to the semifinals where it will play Flowery Branch (15-11), which beat Lumpkin County 62-46 earlier in the evening.
“We’re playing a real good team that we’ve played before,” Cottrell said about facing the team he coached to a region title last season. “The good thing is it’s not an elimination game.”
Thursday’s game against Johnson (13-12) was, and Gainesville needed all it had to pull off the win.
After overcoming a sluggish start, the Red Elephants went on a 13-3 run to start the second quarter, which was keyed by back-to-back 3-pointers by George Manomano and Ty Redmon. Manomano, who scored 16 points for Gainesville, finished the spurt with a personal 4-0 run.
That run was nothing compared to the shooting spree Johnson’s Grant Cagle went on.
With his team down by 10 points, Cagle hit two 3-pointers to cut the deficit to four points. Combined with a Devaris Finch 3-pointer, Cagle hit two more 3’s in the third quarter that put Johnson behind by two.
Just seconds later, two Finch free throws tied the game at 34 with 3:38 left in the third. The 34-34 tie was the first tie since the score was 10-10 at the start of the second quarter.
Finch finished the game with 14 points, while Cagle had 15.
The tie score was enough to motivate the Red Elephants, who went on a 12-2 run that was capped by a fastbreak dunk by junior Blake Sims. Sims tied with Manomano as the team’s leading scorer with 16 points, eight of which came in the first quarter.
“I was real proud of our guys,” Cottrell said. “To find a way to win, against a tough team, I’m just real proud of them.”
Cottrell was especially proud of the way Gainesville dominated inside. Led by Juwan Jeffries 12 rebounds, A.J. Johnson’s 11 and Nick Johnson’s seven, the Red Elephants outrebounded Johnson 43-28, with both Johnson’s accounting for five offensive rebounds each.
“I though we had an advantage inside,” Cottrell said. “Rebounding is one of the things we were focused on and in tournament play that’s real important.”
Not only was the Gainesville head coach proud of his team’s rebounding missed shots, he was also proud of how they responded to the lost lead.
“Our guys have pretty good character,” Cottrell said. “They love to compete, and that was evident when it got close.”
That character may come into play when Gainesville plays Flowery Branch at 5:30 tonight with a berth in the region championship on the line.
Johnson’s season is now complete.
Flowery Branch 62, Lumpkin County 46
Flowery Branch coach Duke Mullis summed up his team’s win Thursday with one statement, “When we shoot like that we’re tough to beat.”
Lumpkin County (13-11) found that out first hand, as the Falcons went 10-for-13 from 3-point range and shot 64 percent from the field en route to a 16-point win that advanced them to the state playoffs for the second straight year.
The Falcons were led by senior sharpshooter Josh Barrett, who made all five of his 3-point attempts and finished the game with 22 points. Ishmael Hollis added 15 points for Flowery Branch.
Flowery Branch’s hot shooting was on full display in the second half, as the team made its first seven attempts to build an 18-point lead. Rashad Tate led the Falcons’ scoring barrage by scoring all seven of his points at the start of the third quarter.
“It was a great shooting effort,” said Mullis, whose team missed just two field goals in the third quarter. “I thought we played real balanced tonight.”
That balance proved too much for the Indians, whose last lead came in the first quarter when the score was 8-7.
Lumpkin County was led by E.J. Young, who scored 16 points with six steals, and Shawn Chapman, who scored 13 points.
While he didn’t know at the time his team would be playing Gainesville in the semifinals, Mullis knew it was a definite possibility.
“If it happens to be Gainesville that’s good because it’s a natural rivalry,” said Mullis, who hoped his players wouldn’t be too motivated by playing their former coach.
“I just want need them to be focused,” he said. “Last time we played here I think that played a role in the game and I hope it doesn’t happen again.”