FLOWERY BRANCH -- Johnson remembers well what it took to get to the Lanierland title game in 2012 -- this time the Knights feel they have what it takes to go one step further.
Johnson looked ready for their second straight shot at a Lanierland crown in Thursday's boys semifinal, holding off Gainesville for a 87-76 victory at Flowery Branch High.
The outcome set up a showdown with East Hall in Saturday's championship, where the Vikings will look to snare their first Lanierland trophy since 2010 -- the Knights, meanwhile, will be gunning for only their second ever tournament title.
"There's no substitute for experience, and last year I think North Hall having been there before made a big difference -- we had a little bit of the deer in the headlights look to us early in last year's final," Johnson coach Jeff Steele said. "I haven't seen any signs of that this year."
Indeed, the Knights (6-2) displayed plenty of nerve against the Red Elephants (3-5), answering nearly every Gainesville basket in kind -- or at the free throw line. Johnson drained 21 of 25 attempts at the charity stripe, helping to offset 11 3-pointers from the Red Elephants.
"I told the guys that if we shot free throws like normal it would have been a nail-biter," Steele chuckled. "But I could tell there something different about our guys at the line tonight. From the start they went up there with confidence, and you could tell it didn't bother them."
The Knights looked comfortable from the start, pulling away from a tight first quarter with a 15-2 run that helped Johnson to a 41-31 halftime lead. Gainesville never got closer than seven points the rest of the way, as Johnson's Ty Cockfield (26 points), James Hodges (25 points) and Drew Dunham (21 points) took turns finding the basket.
"Drew was the best player on the floor tonight in every aspect," said Steele of his senior point guard who also had eight assists and five rebounds. "He runs the team so well."
Dunham's steady influence ensured that the Knights turned the ball over just six times in the first half, while Johnson forced 12 Red Elephants turnovers to help grab control of the game. Justin Jones drilled two 3-pointers, while Hodges added a three-point play in the pivotal second quarter run that saw the Knights pull ahead 33-20.
Yet Gainesville refused to wilt and stayed within striking distance throughout -- seven first half 3-pointers aiding the Red Elephants, as Sam Carpenter (12 points), Jay Gaudlock and Luke Maddox each hit from deep.
Gainesville managed just one trey in the third quarter, however, and watched Johnson build a 67-51 lead at the start of the fourth quarter -- until Nam Van Dulm sparked the Red Elephants with 16 of his team-high 20 points over the final eight minutes to keep the Knights from pulling out of sight.
Johnson proved too strong, however, maintaining its path toward another Lanierland opportunity.
"It's encouraging that we're in the finals again and the guys were upset our performance tonight," Steele said. "A lot of them knew they could play better tonight. Now we've just got to focus on the opportunity at hand -- hopefully get a good night's sleep tomorrow and get it done Saturday."
Johnson will battle East Hall for the tournament crown at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Lakeview Academy.
The Red Elephants, meanwhile, will face Chestatee at 5:30 p.m. Saturday for third place.
EAST HALL BOYS 74,
Jacquen Hopkins kept the Vikings close early and Kyvon Davenport helped turned the tide with his inside play, as East Hall overturned a storming War Eagles start to clinch a Lanierland final berth.
Hopkins scored 10 of his team-high 23 points in the first quarter to ensure Chestatee stayed within striking distance after the War Eagles exploded for 25 points in the first quarter.
"I told (Hopkins) at one point when I subbed him out, 'way to keep the blowout at bay,' " East Hall coach Joe Dix said after watching his team fall behind 25-13 over the first eight minutes -- Hopkins nailing a 3-pointer at the buzzer to haul the Vikings within 25-16 at the start of the second quarter.
Davenport also came up with key baskets in the post, scoring 12 of his 21 in the first half, as East Hall trailed 42-34 at the interval.
The War Eagles looked equipped to handle the charge, however, Hunter Creamer scoring back-to-back baskets early in the third quarter for a 51-41 Chestatee lead.
Then East Hall (5-3) found another gear.
Turning up their defensive pressure, the Vikings surged ahead via a 20-4 run that saw East Hall pull in front 61-55 on Caleb Holtzclaw's 3-pointer with 7:03 remaining. Holtzclaw finished with 11 points.
"Our defense picked up the intensity, and we guarded the 3-point line better," Dix said. "They didn't hit a 3-pointer in the second half after hitting five in the first half. We knew they were a good team and that we would have to play well to get the win. We didn't play well in the first half, but we really turned it up in the second half."
Creamer and Jordan Pulliam, who scored a game-high 24 points, took turns scoring to keep Chestatee within four points, but East Hall proved too strong down the stretch, denying the War Eagles their first ever Lanierland championship game appearance.
Creamer finished with 16 point for the War Eagles, while Joey Scheman added 11.
Chestatee will take on Gainesville at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Lakeview Academy for third place.
East Hall, meanwhile, knows it faces a tough task against Johnson in the boys championship game at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Lakeview.
"Johnson is really talented, and I think it's the best team they've had since I've been in Hall County," Dix said. "If we're going to win that game we better play really well."
EAST HALL GIRLS 51,
The Lady Vikings came out strong, burying four first quarter 3-pointers, as they built a 19-6 lead.
Jatasia Bailey led East Hall with a game-high 20 points, while Ashlyn Ellison and Allison Millwood each added eight points.
Kimmie Bailey led Johnson with six points. The Lady Knights managed just four field goals during the game, as the Lady Vikings built a 33-9 halftime lead.
East Hall will face Flowery Branch in the fifth place game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Lakeview Academy.
Johnson will take on West Hall in the seventh place game at 10 a.m. Saturday at Lakeview.
FLOWERY BRANCH GIRLS 50,
WEST HALL 25
The Lady Falcons bounced back from two straight defeats with a lopsided victory at home.
Breanna Locke led the way for Flowery Branch with 14 points, while Janoah Williams added 10. Heather Moore also scored seven points, all in the first half.
The Lady Falcons will take on East Hall in the fifth place game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Lakeview Academy.
West Hall, meanwhile, will face Johnson in the seventh place game at 10 a.m. Saturday at Lakeview.