CLARKSTON -- It was all in the balance -- and then came the rain.
Gainesville football saw its state title hopes washed away, while Tucker rode a sudden deluge to victory on Friday night, scoring a late touchdown to pull out a 20-14 win in the Class AAAAA semifinals in Clarkston.
For three quarters fans were treated to a defensive slugfest, but the rain -- and Dominick Sanders -- proved too much for the Red Elephants.
The Tucker standout scored two second half touchdowns and halted the Red Elephants' final possession with his second interception of the night, knocking Gainesville from the playoffs and sending Tucker to a state title showdown with Creekside in the Georgia Dome.
It was an emotional finale for a number of Red Elephants senior standouts, including quarterback Deshaun Watson, who ended the night with 185 yards passing, 41 yards rushing and two touchdowns. The Clemson-bound signal caller staked the visitors to a 14-0 lead but could not find a way to overcome an impressive second half effort from the Tigers, who picked off Watson four times over the course of the contest.
"This game showed the effort and the heart that we have here at Gainesville," said Watson, who ended his career with 13,077 yards passing -- one of a number of state records he now holds. "We just couldn't pull it out in the end and that happens sometimes."
Gainesville fans could be forgiven for thinking "that" almost never happens to this group of Red Elephants -- who were in their third straight semifinal and created memories to last a lifetime. And Gainesville (12-2) fought until the end on Friday, as heavy winds and rain pelted the field over the final seven minutes -- though it was that Tigers defense that made the biggest difference, holding Gainesville to 55 yards in the second half.
"This team's been fun to coach all year," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "They play so hard, and they just hang in there, hang in there, hang in there. ... I was concerned coming in that (Tucker) had a great defense, and they did."
The Red Elephants rolled up yards, especially early, but turnovers and missed scoring opportunities proved costly for Gainesville. The Red Elephants notched seven first quarter points -- but left more on the field after three times moving inside the Tucker 20-yard line but seeing one possession end in a turnover and another in a partially-blocked field goal attempt.
"I thought that hurt us," Miller said. "We didn't make the plays down there we needed to to capitalize."
Yet the Red Elephants defense matched Tucker (14-0) for most of the contest, allowing only 252 yards -- just 82 in the first half. Tucker seemed energized by the rains that blew in, however, piecing together its most dominant drive of the contest and taking the lead on a five-yard run from Sanders with 2:22 remaining.
"I'm very proud of the way we played defensively and offensively," Miller said. "I thought we took advantage of some things we wanted to take advantage of. We just didn't make plays when needed to and they had a lot to do with it."
Gainesville's defense came ready to play, stuffing Tucker's first three possessions while allowing just one first down in the process.
Meanwhile, the Red Elephants sprinted ahead 7-0 on Watson's nine-yard run with 3:35 left in the first quarter. An interception and partially blocked 45-yard field goal attempt kept Gainesville from building a more sizable advantage, however.
Yet the start of the second quarter also proved big for Gainesville, as the Red Elephants forced a fumble from Nekyle Lundie that Brenquez Dukes picked up and returned to the Tucker 24.
Gainesville looked as if it might not convert the takeaway, but on fourth and 11, Watson bought time and lofted a pass that Jay Gaudlock leaped and snagged with one hand for a 14-0 advantage. It was part of a strong final game for another Red Elephants senior, as he snagged seven passes for 59 yards to end the season with 1,266 yards receiving. Junior Rodney Lackey also caught nine passes 35 yards, while Chastin Newman hauled in three catches for 50 yards.
Gaudlock's jaw-dropping play didn't maintain the Red Elephants' momentum, however, as Tucker returned the ensuing kickoff 70 yards to set up a nine-yard touchdown pass from Joseph Farrar to Detric Dukes with 8:54 left in the half.
It was a rare offensive highlight for the Tigers, who managed just 82 total yards. Yet Gainesville's offense also stuttered at times, rolling up 193 yards, including 130 through the air for Watson, but the senior was also picked off three times -- two on deep passes -- including a hail mary on the final play of the half.
Defense continued to hold sway after the interval -- though the Tigers found their big play touch late in the the third quarter, Farrar going 33 yards down the middle to Sanders to knot the score at 14-14 with 1:25 left in the quarter.
The game needed something special to unlock the two combatants, though few would have expected Mother Nature to intervene.
GAINESVILLE....7....7....0....0 -- 14
TUCKER.............0....7....7....6 -- 20
GHS -- Watson 9 run (Turner kick) 3:35, 7-0
GHS -- Gaudlock 25 pass from Watson (Turner kick) 10:36, 14-0
THS -- Dukes 8 pass from Farrar (Webber kick) 8:54, 14-7
THS -- Sanders 33 pass from Farrar (Webber kick) 1:25, 14-14
THS -- Sanders 5 run (kick failed) 2:22, 14-20