Posted: Tuesday, February 5th 2013 at 2:22pm
Red Elephants enjoying rebound, know toughest tests still ahead
By Morgan Lee Editor
Gainesville's Deshaun Watson, center, raises to shoot over the Flowery Branch defense in last week's defeat of Flowery Branch in Gainesville. / photo: David Weikel
GAINESVILLE -- The Gainesville boys basketball team has won eight of its last nine games, including five straight, charging right back into the race for the top tournament seed for Region 8-AAAAA.
Yet when Red Elephants coach Todd Cottrell looks at how far his team has come in the past month, he can’t help but remember that one loss.
“When we played the Christ School (out of Arden, N.C.) -- they are a really good team, and we had a chance to win that game the whole way,” Cottrell said of an 82-74 defeat on Jan. 19 to a team that included Alabama-bound standout Shannon Hale. “I think that game gave us a lot of confidence that we could play with anybody and that if we could just clean up this and that we could become a really good team.”
For much of the past two weeks Gainesville has been very tidy indeed, winning by an average margin of 20.6 points and moving within two games of the top spot in 8-AAAAA.
Not too shabby for a team that began the season 1-6.
“We’re playing better, and things have certainly been really good lately, but we want to be better,” Cottrell said. “The kids know we can play better, and we’re still behind where we want to be.”
Much of that slow start can be attributed to the fact that four key players -- Chase England, Tray Harrison, Caleb Hayman and Deshaun Watson -- missed the entire preseason and much of the first month of the campaign while helping the Red Elephants to a state championship on the football field.
“We’ve also had the typical stuff like injuries and sickness, and it’s just been hard to get in a rhythm,” Cottrell said. “I really think this could be a very good team, but we’ve still got a way to go.”
The Red Elephants (13-9, 7-6 Region 8-AAAAA) have begun to show some returns of that promise, however. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, as Gainesville stares down a three-game slate to end the regular the season that includes 8-AAAAA co-leaders Loganville and Salem and a contest with Cedar Shoals -- which currently sits second in the standings.
“This league is so good, and everybody has a capable team,” said Cottrell, whose program is in the midst of its first campaign in Class AAAAA after moving up from Class AAA in the offseason. “Everybody in this league has three good players, and there’s a difference in the athleticism and size of the kids that come off the bench. You look at the ninth place team in warm-ups and go ‘holy smokes.’ ”
The opposition may be starting to feel the same way about the Red Elephants, however, and with Loganville and Salem just two wins ahead in the standings, Gainesville is in a perfect position to continue their ascent -- though Cottrell says it will be a large task.
“Loganville has won eight straight games, and Salem has won three straight,” Cottrell said.
The Red Elephants did defeat the Red Devils 62-54 in Gainesville on Jan. 4 and dropped a 77-74 heartbreaker at Salem on Jan. 8. Yet the Red Elephants are playing differently now than in those contests and are starting to display some defensive prowess.
Gainesville’s athleticism and depth have also been keys, as standouts such as Shaquan Cantrell offer match-up problems of their own for opposing defenses.
“I’m comfortable with any of my guys out there right now,” Cottrell said. “We don’t have any superstars, but we’ve got a bunch of guys who can play.”
That certainly includes Cantrell, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding at 18.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. One of seven seniors that contribute regularly, the 6-foot-4 forward is explosive around the rim but has added an outside scoring touch this season, sinking 24 3-pointers.
He is joined by fellow seniors Luke Moore -- who has grown into a standout role this season, scoring 11.8 ppg, including a team-high 47 3-pointers -- England -- a versatile forward averaging 9 points and six rebounds per game -- Hayman -- who can bang inside (6.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) -- and Harrison -- who leads the team from the point.
Watson has also been a key figure, averaging 10.6 ppg, with an ability to score inside and out -- including last Friday’s 75-54 defeat of Flowery Branch when he drilled five 3-pointers.
“We’ve also got guys like Jikeese Ruff off the bench, who can play four spots on the floor, and Luke Maddox has come on in leaps and bounds,” Cottrell said. “The big thing is that a lot of these guys have played together for a long time, and they’ve grown up together.
“It’s been a lot of fun to coach. They’re a good group, a fun group, and you hate to see it end.”
If recent play is any indication, that may not be the case for some time -- though Cottrell knows that nothing will be certain in an 8-AAAAA tournament that could see any team come out on top.
“I’m not sure seeding really even matters in this tournament; anyone could beat anybody, and it’s going to be interesting,” Cottrell said.
And after suffering a region tournament upset in last season’s 8-AAA bracket that kept Gainesville out of the state playoffs, the Red Elephants won’t have to look far for proper motivation.
“This group is pretty focused, and they could be the type of team that could go to state or play for a region title, but they also know they have to be ready to play every night,” Cottrell said. “We learned a hard lesson last year, and this group is still hungry, and they haven’t played their best basketball yet.”
Gainesville travels to face Loganville on Tuesday.
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