D’Marcus Simonds said he’d like to win a state championship to “leave this city with something to remember.”
In what could have been Simonds' final game on Gainesville’s home floor, the Georgia State signee certainly gave fans a half of basketball to remember.
Simonds poured in 33 points Wednesday, including 25 in the first half, to lead the Red Elephants to a 68-62 victory over Villa Rica in the opening round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs.
Gainesville (21-5) advances to face fifth-ranked McIntosh in the second round Saturday in Peachtree City.
“The (region) championship game (against Cedar Shoals) was basically a humbling experience for us,” Simonds said of the Red Elephants’ 70-48 loss last Saturday.
“We played absolutely horrible. We got destroyed by a team that played completely better than us, so that woke us up. So we came out here tonight and play Gainesville basketball the way coach tells us to.”
Gainesville clung to a three-point lead, 61-58, with 1:30 to play against Villa Rica (18-10), but played stingy defense the rest of the way and hit seven of their final eight free throws. The Red Elephants stretched their advantage to 66-58 on a pair of free throws by Messiah Dorsey with 31.4 seconds remaining.
Villa Rica never let Gainesville establish any breathing room in the opening quarter thanks largely to power forward Justus McWilliams, who scored eight of his team-high 20 points in the first period.
Neither team led by more than two points until McWilliams knocked down a 3-pointer with 11 seconds remaining in the quarter to give Villa Rica a 21-18 lead. Simonds responded with a 3-pointer of his own just three seconds before the buzzer to tie the game and deny the Wildcats the momentum going into the second quarter.
Simonds finished the first period with 15 points.
“We come out every game and just kind of see what’s there,” Gainesville coach Benjie Wood said.
“If you’re going to try to cover him (Simonds) one-on-one, I don’t know many people in the state that can do that. And when people start trying to gap him up and double him, he makes the right passes.”
Simonds later scored Gainesville’s final three baskets before halftime — all on transition layups — to give the Red Elephants a 36-29 lead going into halftime.
Villa Rica clamped down on Simonds in the second half and limited him to only one point in the third quarter. Instead, Simonds turned into a playmaker early in the third quarter, as he assisted Bailey Minor and K.J. Buffen on baskets that pushed Gainesville’s lead to 43-31.
“They just toughened up on ‘D,’” Simonds said. “They put number 15 (R.J. Williams) on me and he’s a great defender.
“My teammates made shots, I facilitated for them and it was just an overall good game and I’m glad we got it.”
Villa Rica twice cut Gainesville’s lead to three points later in the third quarter behind a balanced offensive effort that featured more than just McWilliams. Noah Smith (12 points), Tye Hill (10) and Nigel Taylor (10) all stepped up in the second half and finished in double figures for Villa Rica.
The Red Elephants reestablished a cushion in the fourth quarter thanks to a pair of Villa Rica turnovers that led to a 6-0 run that included dunks by Buffen and Simonds, pushing the lead to 59-50 with 5:58 remaining.
“We mix our pressures up into where we’re trapping or not trapping, and what you want to do is just keep the pressure on and hope you have that little spurt,” Wood said. “We talked about this, ‘Guys just keep the pressure on and that’ll be the difference in the game and it was.’”
Gainesville managed just two more points — both on free throws by Simonds — over the next 4:28 of play before sealing the win at the free throw line in the final 90 seconds.
Simonds came away from the win eager to take on McIntosh on the road, but also took time to reflect on his two years playing on the court at Gainesville High.
“Thank God for Gainesville,” Simonds said. “They took me in and made me feel like family. There’s nothing I can ever do to repay them for that.”