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Simonds' steal in closing seconds lifts Gainesville boys to 58-57 win over Salem in region tourney
Big Red secures state berth; Flowery Branch boys fall to Cedar Shoals
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Salem's Mike Green guards Gainesville's D'Marcus Simonds as Simonds goes in for a layup during the Red Elephants' 58-57 win in the Region 8-AAAAA quarterfinals on Wednesday at Gainesville High. - photo by Erin O. Smith

As the finals seconds ticked off the clock, D’Marcus Simonds recognized what was coming and reacted.

His quick thinking might have saved Gainesville’s season.

With the Red Elephants clinging to a one-point lead, Simonds picked off a Salem pass near mid-court and drew a foul with 2.9 seconds remaining. Although he missed the ensuing free throw attempt, the Seminoles’ final, desperation heave from beyond mid-court fell short at the buzzer, and the Red Elephants held on for a 58-57 victory in the Region 8-AAAAA tournament quarterfinals on Wednesday at Gainesville High School.

The win secures a spot for the Red Elephants (24-2) in the Class AAAAA state tournament and sends them on to face Cedar Shoals in the region semifinals at 5:30 p.m. on Friday at Salem High.

“The possession before, they had tried to run the same play but I didn’t jump it, so they swung it to him and he just missed the shot,” Simonds said. “I knew they were going to pass it to him, so I kind of waited for it to come to him and picked up a steal.”

It was a transition game of sorts for Simonds, who returned to the lineup after a two-game suspension only to find himself in a new role as the team’s primary ballhandler moving forward.

The junior guard still led the way on offense with a game-high 24 points, which were just enough to outduel Salem forward Austin Samuel (22).

“With (point guard) Luke (Maddox no longer with the team), I have to find a way to facilitate our offense, get everyone the ball, make everyone happy,” Simonds said. “But at the same time I have to find a way to get my points.

“It should be a bit different than how it was, but I think I’ll handle it well moving forward. That was just kind of like initiation day.”

And it was a difficult initiation for the Red Elephants.

South No. 4 seed Salem (11-15) jumped out to a 16-8 lead at the end of one quarter, then refused to go away even after North No. 1 seed Gainesville pulled ahead by nine points midway through the third period and again early in the fourth.

Red Elephants coach Benjie Wood agreed that the game was something of a microcosm of the team’s tumultous season as a whole.

“I’m super proud of the kids that are left on our team,” Wood said. “I’m proud of all of our kids.

“I love them all, but those kids that were out there tonight, they fought their tails off. We continue to go through adversity, but lots of times adversity builds a lot of character in a young man and I’m really proud of that.”

Gainesville pulled ahead for the last time, 55-53, when Simonds weaved through a trio of Salem defenders and dropped in a layup with 1:58 remaining in the contest.

Twenty-nine seconds later, freshman Xavier Bledson (17 points) knocked down a contested 3-pointer from well behind the line on the left wing to extend Gainesville’s edge to 58-54. That ultimately proved to be the deciding basket — and Gainesville’s final points.

“He’s a clutch player, he has been all year,” Wood said. “I have no problem with him taking that shot. I’ll take him taking that shot every day of the week.”

Jarrett Cook (13 points) pulled Salem closer when he hit a free throw with 1:16 remaining, and Samuel further narrowed the gap to 58-57 on a putback with 24 seconds on the clock.

Gainesville then turned the ball over with 17.3 seconds remaining, giving Salem a chance to play for the final shot.

Instead, Simonds came up with a steal to deny the Seminoles that chance, just as he foiled a last-second scoring attempt just before halftime. He blocked a shot against the backboard as time expired in the opening half — narrowly avoiding a goaltending call after a discussion by the referess — to preserve a 32-27 Gainesville lead going into the third quarter.

Simonds wasn’t the only one to give the Red Elephants key defensive contributions.

“I’ll tell you who was a big spark for us tonight was Michael Wright,” Wood said. “He came in and did a really good job defensively and claimed some boards.

“Obviously we have to do a better job of rebounding the basketball (overall). ... We’re still trying to regroup right now. We’ve had a couple of losses, but I have every confidence that our kids will respond Friday and play well.”

CEDAR SHOALS BOYS 40, FLOWERY BRANCH 37: Cedar Shoals held Flowery Branch to its lowest point total of the season when the Jaguars defeated the Falcons 48-34 in December.

The Falcons (14-12) almost returned the favor Wednesday night, but couldn’t generate enough offense of their own to stay alive in the Region 8-AAAAA tournament.

A 3-pointer by Hunter Konuszewski (game-high 11 points) wouldn’t bank in for North No. 3 seed Flowery Branch at the buzzer, allowing South No. 2 seed Cedar Shoals (18-8) to hang on for a region quarterfinals victory on Wednesday at Gainesville High.

Cedar Shoals moves on to face Gainesville on Friday. Flowery Branch’s season is complete.

“I thought we had a heck of a defensive effort,” Falcons coach David Sokol said. “What we really tried to do was close the driving lanes and make them shoot outside, and I thought we did that. Like I told our guys, a close game like that, every little miscue for either team is going to be a big factor.”

The Falcons had their share of chances in a game where they never trailed by more than four points and held a 25-19 lead — the largest of the night — midway through the third quarter.

But Cedar Shoals held Flowery Branch scoreless for long stretches of play, including the first 6:36 of the second period, and forced enough turnovers to secure the victory down the stretch.

The two teams entered the fourth quarter tied 27-27, before the Jaguars pulled ahead for the last time, 31-30, on a pair of free throws with 5:18 remaining in the game. They maintained a mere one-possession edge until Jaivanni McDavid hit a fallaway jumper in the paint with 51.7 seconds remaining to extend the lead to 36-32.

Konuszewski cut the Falcons’ deficit to 38-37 on a 3 with 8.5 seconds remaining, but Jerrick Mitchell answered with two free throws for the Jaguars and Konuszewski’s ensuing attempt from beyond the arc was off the mark.

Taylor Bourdage finished with nine points for the Falcons, while D’Andre Mahaffey and Phlandrous Fleming led the Jaguars with eight points apiece.

Despite the loss, the Falcons closed their second season under Sokol with their first winning record since the 2009-10 season.

“These guys made it a point to do things together off the court, narrow that gap and become teammates and friends and build relationships and a bond,” Sokol said. “I think that paid dividends and they bought into what we’re trying to do.”

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