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Thursday September 21st, 2017 7:11PM

Playoffs: Gainesville blitzes into quarterfinals

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
  Contact Editor
GAINESVILLE -- Once a pack of Elephants gains momentum, there's no stopping them -- at least that's the way it looked on Wednesday night.

Druid Hills did its best to slow Gainesville in the two teams' Class AAA second round playoff game at Gainesville, playing at a deliberate pace and pressuring the Red Elephants on defense.

But Gainesville shook off the visitors' shackles, and produced several explosive plays en route to a 60-39 victory.

Blake Sims provided a number of them, including a highlight reel lay-up and dunk to go along with his game-high 19 points. He also added six assists and five steals.

"Blake went off tonight," Gainesville senior George Manomano said. "I've been waiting for that. He's been close to it, and he did it tonight."

Sims got plenty of help from his teammates, including 12 points from Juwon Jeffries and 11 from Manomano. But it was on defense that Gainesville shone as a team, holding the Red Devils to just 17 second-half points and forcing 23 turnovers -- including 14 steals.

The victory pushes Gainesville (20-8) through to Saturday's Class AAA quarterfinals in Dalton -- where the Red Elephants will meet up with Cedartown, which defeated North Hall 54-50 on Wednesday.

With the way Gainesville's been playing -- winning 15 of its last 16 games -- no one will be thrilled with the prospect of slowing the Red Elephants momentum.

"They continue to amaze me," Red Elephants coach Todd Cottrell said. "I think we're playing with a lot of confidence. And you have to do that at tournament time."

That confidence certainly extends to Gainesville's defense, which continued to stifle opponents on Wednesday.

"I really liked our defense, especially in the third quarter," Cottrell said. "I thought we came out with some real intensity."

Leading 28-22, Gainesville clamped down at the start of the second half, forcing three straight turnovers -- which turned into instant offense for the Red Elephants, who went on a 10-0 run to start the period. Manomano and Sims each hit 3-pointers during the blitz, and Sims' lay-up with 4:40 left in the period extended Gainesville's advantage to 38-22.

Druid Hills didn't let the Red Elephants run away early, however, pulling back within 39-30 with a 7-1 push near the end of the third. But Sims ensured the Red Devils didn't expand on that momentum, scoring on a jaw-dropping around-the-back lay-up in traffic as the clock expired for a 41-30 advantage.

The basket sparked another Gainesville run, this one putting the Red Elephants ahead 48-30 on another Sims lay-up with 5:32 left to play.

The junior point guard put an emphatic seal on the contest with 3:40 remaining, accelerating past Druid Hills defenders to slam down a dunk in traffic for a 54-34 advantage. Sims slammed to the floor after the play and left the game but returned moments later.

"He's fine; I think he just cramped up," Cottrell said.

Gainesville looked ready to pull away early, knocking down five first-half 3-pointers. Jeffries' first trey put the Red Elephants ahead for good at 10-9 with 5:02 left in the first quarter.

Gainesville then stretched its advantage to 24-13 early in the second quarter thanks in large part to Nick and A.J. Johnson -- who finished with eight points each on the night -- as the duo battled inside against Druid Hills' taller post players.

But the Red Devils began to slow things down just before the half, working for good shots and taking advantage of some Gainesville turnovers to pull within 26-21 on Brandon Harrison's 3-pointer with 1:50 left in the second quarter.

"They work for good shots," Cottrell said. "That's a very good basketball team. It felt close the whole way."

Gainesville ensured it wasn't, however, starting in the third quarter.

The Red Elephants will look to keep their momentum going on Saturday when they take on Cedartown at 5:30 p.m. at the Northwest Georgia Trade Center in Dalton.
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