Posted: Saturday, March 2nd 2013 at 11:59pm
MACON-BOUND: Red Elephants rally past Effingham, advance to AAAAA title game
By Jeff Hart Staff
Gainesville's Keyontra Harrison prepares to lay-up the game-winning shot in the Red Elephants' Class AAAAA semifinal defeat of Effingham County in Kennesaw. / photo: David Weikel
KENNESAW -- Gainesville senior Keyontra Harrison said that if you want something done right, you just have to do it yourself sometimes.
With the clock winding down on perhaps the final eight seconds of Gainesville’s season, the 5-foot-4 guard saw an open lane among the giants of Effingham County and snaked his way to an easy layup with 2.3 seconds left to push the Red Elephants into the Class AAAAA state title game with a thrilling, eye-covering, 63-62 win over the Rebels at Kennesaw State.
“We always try to get the ball to (leading scorer) Shaquan (Cantrell) in those situations but I had been setting (the defender) up for that and when I saw it was clear I just said I was going to do it myself,” Harrison said. “When I saw it go in I knew we had it.”
The Rebels, who came in with a 12-game win streak and a margin of victory in the playoffs of nearly 29 points, had one last chance to win the game but did not get a shot off before time expired.
Despite being the smallest guy on the court, Harrison was Mr. Clutch down the stretch as the Rebels tried to keep the ball out of Cantrell and Deshaun Watson’s hands in the final minutes. He scored seven of his nine points in the final 4:17, including the final four points on virtually identical wide-open drives to the basket in the final 58 seconds.
Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell, who will be making his first-ever finals appearance as a coach, said trust was what won the day in the end.
“They have played enough basketball together that they trust each and know what to do,” Cottrell said. “We didn’t think about a timeout because these guys just have a way of making plays and we trust them. Trey saw something and just made a play. There’s not much more to say really. I’m just proud of these guys. They never quit.”
Gainesville will look for its first basketball title since 1984, taking on Miller Grove -- which defeated Northside, Columbus 72-38 on Saturday -- for the Class AAAAA title next Friday at 8:45 p.m. in Macon.
Until the fourth quarter, it didn’t look like Gainesville, which has won all four playoff games by less than three points, would need any late-game heroics. Luke Maddox, on a similar drive to the basket, gave the Elephants their biggest lead of the game at 48-37 with 1:35 left in the third quarter.
Gainesville had slowed the pace down against the taller Rebels, who had three players over 6-6 on the floor most of the game. The Red Elephants used a smothering, quick defense that produced 12 turnovers, including six steals to that point.
But Effingham County junior JaKeenan Gant, a Division I recruit, took over for the next four minutes. He drained a pair of free throws with 1.7 seconds left in the third and then four more in the first minute of the fourth quarter to pull the Rebels within 48-45.
Effingham senior guard Jay Wright would finish the comeback with an assist and two driving layups to give the Rebels their first lead since the second quarter at 52-50. Wright would push their lead to 58-54 with 3:24 left after converting 1-of-2 free throws.
Gainesville would fight back with a Watson 3-pointer and a Caleb Hayman basket with 2:27 left to reclaim the lead at 59-58. The two teams would then trade the lead back-and-forth until Harrison’s game-winning bucket.
“Caleb was fantastic,” Cottrell said. “He made some huge plays and when things looked bad early he got us going.”
The Rebels controlled the early pace coming out running and gunning and on fire to open the game with a 9-0 run less than three minutes into the game. They held Gainesville to 0-for-5 shooting while hitting four of their first six shots.
But the Red Elephants did not crumble under the quick onslaught. Cantrell and Watson pulled them within 13-8 two minutes later, highlighted by a Watson 3-pointer. Cantrell would get Gainesville within 18-12 on the final basket of the first quarter.
"I think we were a little concerned after that first run but we settled down and just started playing," Harrison said. "These seniors have heart and don't give up."
The pace of the second quarter, however, was just what the Elephants wanted. They were able to slow down the Rebels with a variety of defenses. After Effingham took a 21-14 lead on Ryan Wilkins’ second trey of the game, Gainesville got its defense going.
They forced five turnovers in seven possessions to spark a 15-6 run. Cantrell would drain two 3-pointers and Hayman dominated the boards against the taller Rebels with six rebounds. Gainesville would finally grab its first lead at 29-27 on a stick-back basket by Chase England with 1:56 left in the half.
The two teams traded the lead three times in the final 90 seconds of the half with England knocking down a 3-pointer from the corner at the buzzer for a 32-30 halftime lead.
“Nothing has come easy for us this year and I didn’t expect anything different (tonight),” Cottrell said. “I just hope we have one more in us.”
Cantrell would pace Gainesville with 17 points, but was held to just three after halftime. Luke Moore finished with 14 points, including three 3-pointers, with 10 coming in the pivotal second half. England finished with seven points and four rebounds before fouling out trying to guard Gant.
Gant finished with a game-high 29 points, five rebounds, and three blocks to lead Effingham, which finished its best season in school history at 28-4. The Rebels had never won a playoff game until this season.
Wright finished with 14 points, four rebounds, and five assists for Effingham. T.J. Johnson added nine points.
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