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Unselfish play propels Gainesville boys into state basketball semifinals
Talent-laden team sharing the basketball well during dominant run through Class 6A playoffs
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Gainesville High's Rafael Rubel passes the ball Wednesday Feb. 21, 2018 during the Red Elephants's Class 6A state basketball playoffs game with Alexander High at the Gainesville High gymnasium. - photo by Scott Rogers

Every now and then, Gainesville High boys basketball coach Benjie Wood will point up to the walkway inside the school’s gym and remind his players of the two framed pictures hanging there.

Team photos of the 1983 and 1984 Red Elephants squads sit on the wall, memorializing the only groups to win a state championship in program history. If Wood needs to reinforce a point, he simply brings up the first time he spoke with his team about the former Gainesville greats.

“I took the guys upstairs and showed them the state championship team pictures,” Wood said. “I asked them, ‘Who started for this team? Who was the leading scorer?’ Nobody knew. Then I asked, ‘Who didn’t play? Who wasn’t a star on this team?’ They didn’t know that either. But all those guys can still come in here and point to their picture and know they were part of it.

“We try to keep preaching the team concept … and let the guys know it’s bigger than any one person or individual stats.”

The Red Elephants have taken that message to heart, and now they’re just two wins away from carving out a space of their own on the gym wall.

Unselfish play has propelled Gainesville into the Class 6A state semifinals, where it will face fellow No. 1 seed Heritage at 4 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.

Following the Red Elephants’ 83-47 victory against Pope in the first round of the playoffs, Wood said he had never seen a Gainesville team share the basketball as well as they did that night. The trend continued in a 25-point win against Alexander and a huge, 111-66 romp versus Lakeside-Evans, during which the Red Elephants dished 27 assists.

Despite a roster loaded with college-bound talent — including Middle Tennessee State signee KJ Buffen, a consensus top-10 player in the state — the Red Elephants (23-6) have bought into the team-first mentality.

“We just take into consideration that everybody can play and everybody can score,” said senior guard Kajuan Hale, who’s undecided on where he’ll be playing at the next level. “From there, we just play ball.”

Now Gainesville is on the doorstep of its first state championship game appearance since 2013, when the team lost a tight game against Miller Grove.

Last year’s Red Elephants squad seemed poised to reach the state title game stage, only to endure a heartbreaking overtime loss on their home court to eventual state champion Langston Hughes in the quarterfinals. 

The pain of that defeat has motivated Gainesville to finish the job this season, evidenced by its average margin of victory of more than 35 points per game in the tournament. 

Wood and senior guard Xavier Bledson, who will play collegiately at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, both said they’ve seen a different level of focus from the team since the playoffs started.

“It has been a good run,” Hale said. “We had to overcome what happened last year. We got over the hump, and now we’re focused on winning state.”

Langston Hughes could once again stand in the way of the Red Elephants reaching that goal if the top-seeded Panthers beat No. 2 seed Jonesboro in the other semifinal contest at 8 p.m. Saturday in Carrollton.

But Heritage comes first after it squeezed by top-seeded North Atlanta, 58-53, on the road in the quarterfinals. After finishing on top of Region 3-6A, the Patriots (17-8) beat Drew by five points in the first round of the postseason before taking down Bradwell, 83-73.

“They’re an athletic team, and they play really hard,” Wood said. “They have some guys who can shoot. We know what to expect, and that’s that they’ll shoot it from just about anywhere.”

JaQuez Hicks, a 6-foot-8 senior who puts up just shy of nine rebounds per game for Heritage, could make up for the distinct size advantage the Red Elephants enjoy against most opponents. Three Patriots average 9.3 points or more per game, led by junior guard Trelan Scott with 14.8.

Gainesville has been known to spread the ball around, too.

Five Red Elephants players recorded double-digit points in their first-round win, while four broke that mark in the second round. But Gainesville also has the luxury of leaning on its stars if they exploit a particular matchup or get on a roll, like in the quarterfinal blowout when Bledson (23), Hale (22) and Buffen (18) all had huge scoring nights.

The key to winning it all will be the Red Elephants’ unselfishness, which they seemed to have honed at the right time. If they can keep it up, another team picture might get hung up in the Gainesville gym in the coming weeks.

“It has been evolving throughout the year,” Wood said of his team’s willingness to share the ball. “They’re still teenage kids working hard at getting better. We’ll continue to improve, and the kids have bought into it. The seniors met, and they’re the ones leading the way. 

“They know what’s at stake.”

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