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Ruff's late free throws send Gainesville past New Manchester, into semifinals
Gainesville's Deshaun Watson battles Keymont Jenkins of New Manchester under the basket during Wednesday's state quarterfinal game in Gainesville. The Red Elephants won 60-58. - photo by Tom Reed

One thing’s clear about the run the Gainesville boys basketball team is on in the state tournament: It knows how to win the close ones.

“Very little has come easy for us this season,” Red Elephants coach Todd Cottrell said, following a nail-biting 60-58 state quarterfinal win against New Manchester on Wednesday.

Red Elephants senior Jikeese Ruff hit the go-ahead free throws with only seconds left against the Jaguars, then Gainesville held its breath as New Manchester’s leading-scorer Ryan Edwards missed on a 3-point attempt at the buzzer in the Class AAAAA matchup in Gainesville. With the win, Gainesville (22-9) heads to the state semifinals to face Effingham County at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Kennesaw State University.

This marks the Red Elephants’ first state semifinal berth since 2009, then in Class AAA. Effingham County (27-4) won its quarterfinal game against Creekside 84-52 on Wednesday.

The first two rounds of the postseason were just as close for the Red Elephants: In the first round it was a three-point win against Hiram, then a 41-40 second-round win against Mays on Saturday.

“I’m so proud of our guys,” Cottrell added. “They are a mature group and this is something that most of them have been working for years now to accomplish.”

Tied 58-58 with only :12 seconds remaining, Ruff headed to the free throw line, knowing it could likely decide the game. He responded by knocking down both shots, even though he said the stress was just as bad as could be imagined with a packed house watching on his home floor.

“I was just praying that I would make it,” Ruff said. “It really was a scary feeling.”

After he made both shots to take the 60-58 lead, New Manchester hurried the ball down court, got the ball into the hands of its leading scorer Edwards (18 points), only to have his attempt bounce high off the rim at the buzzer.

Cottrell said the win for Gainesville was a collaboration of great teamwork. Senior forward Shaquan Cantrell finished with a game-high 19 points and seven rebounds for the Red Elephants, including a dunk late in the third quarter that cut into a five-point Jaguars lead. Luke Moore had 13 points for Gainesville and three 3-pointers in the opening half of play.

Ruff finished the game with nine points, along with two free throws earlier in the fourth quarter of the back-and-forth battle that had six ties in the second half. The Red Elephants finished the fourth quarter 13 of 18 at the free throw line.

Gainesville never trailed in the first half. Moore hit a 3-pointer for Gainesville on the game’s first shot, then again early in the second period to make its lead 24-15.

Cantrell was the biggest inside presence, continually putting up second-effort baskets and pulling down a game-high seven rebounds.

“Making it to the state semifinals is an amazing feeling,” Cantrell said. “We’ve put in a lot of hard work to get to this point.”

The game clearly swung in Gainesville’s favor with Cantrell’s dunk late in the third quarter, making the score 45-42 heading into the final period of play. Earlier in the third quarter, New Manchester (21-10) took its first lead with a pair of free throws by Glenn Holloway.

After Cantrell tied the score with a basket on the next trip down court, Holloway hit his second and final basket of the night for the Jaguars, giving them a 36-34 lead.

Tied 40-40 with 3:30 left in the third quarter, Neshon Dortch (14 points) hit a 3-pointer for New Manchester, followed by a Joe Boyer’s layup to give New Manchester a 45-40 lead with 1:45 left in the quarter.

Then in the fourth quarter, Gainesville regained the lead on a pair of free throws by Moore. Gainesville’s biggest lead of the final period was 55-51 after junior Deshaun Watson hit the front end of a pair of free throws. Just three minutes before that, Watson hit a 3-pointer for his only field goal of the night.

Edwards had a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter to give New Manchester a temporary lead. He had three 3-pointers in the first half, two of those back-to-back in the second quarter.

With the loss, New Manchester’s season is finished.

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