Hall County basketball fans, especially those who made the trip to Macon or Atlanta this past week, probably have a bad taste lingering in their mouths.
The Flowery Branch High girls and Gainesville High boys drummed up plenty of hype over the last three weeks, waltzing through the state playoffs all the way to championship games. Both teams, though, came home empty-handed after tough losses on the state’s biggest stage.
But fans still have so much to proud of considering the Lady Falcons and Red Elephants got there in the first place.
Just take it from the coaches who watched as their players brought state championship hopes to Hall County and then represented the area well even in defeat.
“I am extremely proud of our group, I’m extremely proud of what they stand for, extremely proud of their fight and what they’ve been able to accomplish over the last four years, especially our group of seniors,” Flowery Branch coach Courtney Newton-Gonzalez said following her team’s 60-49 loss to Buford on Thursday in Macon.
“I wouldn’t wanna coach any other 12 kids in this state. Period.”
Gainesville coach Benjie Wood shared similar sentiments after his team lost to Class 6A’s defending champion Langston Hughes, 85-78, on Friday in Atlanta.
“I’m so proud of the kids,” he said. “They showed so much effort, and I’m proud of everything that they did. … They brought a lot of excitement to the area, a lot of excitement for the community and for basketball. But more importantly, they grew as young men.”
They also fought to the very end against Langston Hughes, which claimed an 11-point lead with less than two minutes to play.
Over the next 59 seconds, the Red Elephants trimmed their deficit to just three points and appeared to be heading for a fairy tale ending.
That didn’t happen, but Wood praised his players for keeping their cool and fighting through “unfortunate situations,” specifically the questionable pair of second-half technical fouls assessed to Gainesville that greatly swung the momentum of the game.
The Red Elephants also conducted themselves with grace on night rife with emotions. On top of trying to end the program’s 34-year state championship drought, Gainesville had to deal with the prospect of playing a Langston Hughes squad that knocked it out of last year’s state quarterfinals with a stunning overtime victory.
It certainly wasn’t the ending the Red Elephants wanted, but they deserve credit for coming together and winning 21 straight games after a bumpy start to the season that resulted in a 3-6 record.
Flowery Branch, meanwhile, can hang its hat on making history for the second straight season.
The Lady Falcons played in their first-ever state championship game after reaching the state semifinals for the first time a year ago. Last season’s squad faltered on that stage and gave away a late lead, but this Flowery Branch team showed its experience and resiliency by storming back from a 15-point, first-half deficit to win by double digits in the semifinals.
The state championship loss might sting a little more than usual given it came against Region 8-5A rival Buford, which routinely competes for titles in almost every sport.
But Flowery Branch should take pride in hanging around well into the second half against arguably the best girls basketball team in the state in any classification. The Lady Falcons appear to be building something special under Newton-Gonzalez, and this year was another step in the right direction.
At the end of the day — and a truly special season for both Flowery Branch and Gainesville — no one can say either team didn’t deserve to be playing for a title.
The Lady Falcons won their first four playoff games by an average of nearly 19 points as a No. 2 seed that was guaranteed just one home contest in the tournament.
The Red Elephants, Region 8-6A champions for the second straight year, demolished their postseason competition by more than 30 points an outing while carving a path to their first state title game appearance since 2013.
Both teams are losing sizeable and talented senior classes, and they may take a step back next season in their quests to finally hoist a state championship trophy. Gainesville faces even more turnover as Wood prepares to take over new Hall County school Cherokee Bluff when it opens this fall.
But fans of both squads, and folks who follow area basketball in general, should take some time to reflect on their accomplishments this season.
It’s not every year Hall County sends two teams to the state championship, after all.
Marcus Rodrigue is a sports writer for The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @RodrigueReport on Twitter.