West Hall was running to a second double-digit win over Gainesville in the month of January, and the Red Elephants were in need of someone to step up and lead the way.
They found their leader in freshman Deshaun Watson, who took over the game in the second half and guided the Red Elephants to a 70-67 triple overtime win in a Region 8B-AAA game on Monday in Gainesville.
Watson finished with a career-high 34 points — all but two in the second half and overtime periods — that included 16 of 19 shooting from the free throw line and 4-for-8 3-point shooting.
Gainesville trailed West Hall 31-18 with 2:30 left in the third quarter.
“We came out in the second half and in overtime with heart and we believed in each other,” said Watson, also the quarterback of the football team. “We came out with fire.”
The game was reminiscent of an earlier matchup between the two teams, when the Spartans roared to a 26-point first-half lead before Gainesville rallied for a 64-62 win during the Lanierland tournament Dec. 20. That was the Spartans’ last loss until Monday, a run that included an 11-game win streak and a climb to No. 4 in the state rankings. In that run, West Hall beat Gainesville 77-57 at home Jan. 4 in the first subregion matchup.
The Spartans (18-4, 9-1) still hold a 1 1/2 game lead over the Red Elephants (14-6, 7-2) in the subregion standings.
Both teams started slow, with West Hall leading 8-6 after the first quarter and 19-13 at halftime. The Spartans opened the third quarter on a 12-5 run to build a 13-point lead, but Gainesville scored the final seven points to trail 31-25.
Watson entered the fourth quarter with just four points. Up to that point, he had blended in with an anemic offense that had never led in the game, leaving sure points behind in lieu of missed dunks, missed alley-oops and numerous turnovers.
“We inflicted a lot of pain on ourselves early,” Red Elephants coach Todd Cottrell said. “Those are things we can correct, and we’re going to have to if we’re going to be a good basketball team in the (region) tournament.”
West Hall also struggled offensively. The Spartans had several opportunities throughout the game to extend their lead and put the game out of reach, but they missed numerous shots underneath the basket.
“We got to the rim dozens of times and we missed dozens of shots from 2 feet in,” Spartans coach Warren Sellers said. “ We shot tentatively, like we were waiting for someone to come block it.
“That was the story of the game.”
Watson came alive in the fourth quarter, exploiting the Spartans’ zone defense by hitting five of his six free-throw attempts and two 3-pointers, the second of which gave Gainesville its first lead of the game, 45-44, with 27 seconds remaining. After West Hall went scoreless the ensuing possession, Watson hit one of two free throws to give Gainesville a 46-44 lead.
Moments before, West Hall center William Stroup fouled out, leaving with four blocks and three shot alterations, which would end up severely crippling the Spartans’ defense.
With 10.5 seconds left, Dre Pou drove to the basket and was fouled as he delivered an underhand layup so high off the glass it barely touched the net. Pou’s shot tied the game with 5.4 seconds remaining and gave him a chance to take the lead from the foul line.
“I just saw an opening to the goal and I took it with confidence,” said Pou, who had a team-high 20 points. “I thought we were going to win it.”
Pou missed the go-ahead free throw attempt, sending the game to a first overtime.
Each team scored just two field goals in the first overtime, with Shunquez Stephens’ basket with 1:45 left the last bucket of the period.
The Spartans jumped to a 56-50 lead in the second overtime, but never adjusted from their zone defense, and Gainesville was successful in breaking it down and finding the open Watson. He hit a 3-pointer to cut West Hall’s lead to 56-53, and later hit another 3 to bring the score to 60-58 with 1:15 left.
“We found some holes,” Cottrell said. “I think when Stroup got into foul trouble, that really helped us.”
A.J. Johnson was fouled making a game-tying layup with 35.5 seconds left, but missed the free throw, sending the game to a third and final overtime at 60 all.
Watson opened the final period scoring Gainesville’s first five points to give the Red Elephants a 65-62 lead.
After a West Hall missed 3-pointer — the Spartans didn’t make a 3 the entire game — Tray Harrison hit his only field goal of the game, a layup in transition to give the Red Elephants a 67-62 lead.
West Hall was forced to foul the rest of the way, and had the chance to send the game to a fourth overtime, but a 3-point attempt from half court was no good.
“I can’t say this is the best game I’ve been a part of, because I’ve been to Macon (where Gainesville played in the state quartefinals in 2009),” said Johnson, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds. “But it’s up there.”
Shunquez Stephens finished with 16 points, Ty Cantrell had 13 points, and Jamad Stephens had 10 for West Hall.
Gainesville hosts Lanier tonight, and West Hall travels to Oconee County, with both games starting at 7:30 p.m., following the girls’ 6 p.m. start.
GAINESVILLE GIRLS 51, WEST HALL 24: The Lady Red Elephants (8-10, 4-3) used a 16-8 run in the second quarter and 15-4 run in the fourth for an easy win. MiKalyn DeFoor and Rebecca Webster each scored 10 points for Gainesville.
West Hall was led by Maia Booker’s 12 points.