Posted: Wednesday, March 6th 2013 at 10:18am
Basketball: Gainesville not backing down from yet another challenge
By Morgan Lee Editor
Gainesville's Jikeese Ruff, left, and Caleb Hayman defender a Mays player during the Red Elephants' second round state playoff win on Feb. 23 in Gainesville. / photo: David Weikel
GAINESVILLE -- Todd Cottrell is under no illusions as to the size of the task facing his Red Elephants on Friday.
“Miller Grove is one of the best teams around... and when I say ‘around,’ I mean the whole southeast,” Cottrell said of the Lithonia-based Wolverines -- who have won four straight Class AAAA titles. “You can’t really find a weakness watching those guys.”
And that’s just fine with Gainesville.
Yes, Miller Grove has been the proverbial machine, but the Red Elephants will not go timidly into Saturday’s title tilt. And why should they? After all, Gainesville brings its own impressive resume to Macon, one that -- most importantly -- shows the Red Elephants know how to perform under pressure.
“I think we’re pretty confident,” Cottrell said. “The experience and maturity that this group has certainly helps with that.”
The momentum of the last 15 games certainly adds something too.
(NOTE: Gainesville’s championship game will be broadcast live at 8:45 p.m. Friday on AM 550/102.9 FM.)
During their impressive win streak -- that began with a 67-41 defeat of Winder-Barrow on Jan. 22 -- the Red Elephants have shown an ability to win both lopsided and close contests. In fact Gainesville claimed its first 11 victories in the streak by an average margin of 15.4 points per game -- including just three single digit wins. That portion of the run represents a large portion of the Region 8-AAAAA regular season and all of the 8-AAAAA tournament.
Once the state playoffs began, however, the Red Elephants kept on winning, and doing it in heart-stopping fashion -- 70-67 in round one, 41-40 in round two, 60-58 in the quarterfinals and 63-62 in last week’s semifinals. That’s an average margin of 1.75 points per game. And in each contest a new hero emerged -- sometimes multiple heroes within a span of a few seconds and more often than not in the final seconds of the contest.
According to Cottrell, that refusal to quit and personification of “clutch” has built a powerful psychological momentum amongst teammates.
“They trust each other; they believe in each other; and they never feel they’re out of it,” Cottrell said. “A lot of them have all played together so long, and they know each other so well.”
Indeed, with nine seniors on the roster, this campaign and realization of postseason success has been built on years of effort.
“These guys work really hard but hadn’t had that state success,” said Cottrell of a class that had only once been to the state tournament -- a first-round exit in 2011. “I think that made them a little more hungry. And with seniors they know this it, so they’re trying to make the most of it.”
Cottrell has enjoyed immensely watching the group develop, taking over from Gainesville’s last state semifinal team to accomplish something no Red Elephants squad has achieved since winning back-to-back titles in 1983-84 -- reach a championship game.
It seems light years away from the slow start that marked this season in which Gainesville opened 1-6 -- a beginning that only served to heighten the need for immediacy for the Red Elephants’ seniors. Yet Cottrell notes that those early stumbles featured plenty of signs of what was to come.
“We weren’t successful on the scoreboard, but we were getting better early,” said Cottrell, who will be coaching in his first state state title game this weekend.
“You look at our leading scorer, Shaquan (Cantrell), and he’s only scoring 19 points per game; he’s not demanding the ball, but he’s making great use of it when he gets it and is taking good shots,” Cottrell said. “In fact the whole team has taken good shots over the last half of the season.”
Whether it is Luke Moore (11.4 points per game), Deshaun Watson (11.8 ppg), Chase England (8.5 ppg), Caleb Hayman, Tray Harrison, Jikeese Ruff, Reed Tipton or Luke Maddox, each has had a chance to shine and -- largely -- taken that chance since late January.
“One through 14 on this team are all good and can all play,” Cottrell said. “A lot of guys have accepted their roles, and they all bring something different. As a coach you have sincere appreciation for guys who are team guys, and that’s what we’ve got.”
According to Cottrell, Miller Grove has much of the same.
“They’re so good at every spot, and they can all play,” Cottrell said of the 29-3 Wolverines, who feature three players averaging double digit scoring -- Kyre’ Hamer (16.7), Keith Pinckney (14.3) and Earl Bryant (12.9), while Alterique Gilbert averages 9.1 ppg. “They’re not huge, but they’re all athletic, very skilled and play very good defense. They’re also very well coached.
“I’m glad it’s not a series. We only have to beat them once, and we’ve got to go play. And we’re excited about that opportunity. I’ve been a coach for 19 years, and it’s been a blessing for me to coach these guys.”
CLASS AAAAA BOYS BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
-- WHEN: 8:45 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: Macon Centreplex, Macon
-- RADIO: AM 550/102.9 FM
-- RECORDS: Gainesville 23-9, Miller Grove 29-3
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