GAINESVILLE -- It was obvious from the broad smile Shaquan Cantrell wore as he jogged downcourt -- the Gainesville boys basketball team is starting to have some fun.
That might be bad news for the rest of Region 8-AAAAA.
It certainly was for Flowery Branch on Friday, as the Red Elephants exploded in the second half of a 75-54 victory in Gainesville.
"We're starting to get better, and the kids are having fun," Red Elephants coach Todd Cottrell said. "It helps that they're playing pretty well right now."
Cantrell certainly played well in helping Gainesville pull away from the Falcons in the second half, scoring all 18 of his points after halftime, including two 3-pointers and two thunderous dunks. His performance linked perfectly with Deshaun Watson's first half dominance, as the junior put up 15 points early en route to a team-high 20 -- including five 3-pointers.
The Red Elephants (13-9, 7-6 Region 8-AAAAA) used the trey to devastating effect throughout, nailing 11 3-pointers, including eight in the first half as they edged ahead 37-30. Cantrell then hit back-to-back treys to start the third quarter before Chase England drilled one of his own to spark an 11-3 run that yielded a 48-33 advantage -- and more than enough momentum for a Gainesville team that claimed its ninth win in 10 contests.
The Red Elephants' defense also picked up the pace after the interval, holding Flowery Branch to just one field goal in the third quarter.
"They're so well coached that you can't really simulate what they do in practice, you just have to play against it," Cottrell said. "And our guys started getting a feel for it and made some great adjustments on the fly."
Jamaad Stephens put up a game-high 24 for the Falcons (6-15, 4-10), while Nick Wayne added 11, but it wasn't nearly enough to stem the Red Elephants, who surged ahead 62-41 on England's putback with 4:38 remaining and cruised the rest of the way.
"We still have room to improve, and we've got to keep getting better," Cottrell said. "We're about a month behind still (because of football players missing time due to a state playoff run), but that did help us build some depth. And this group has played together for a while. That makes a difference."
Watson looks to be finding his rhythm on the hardwood at just the right time. The star quarterback drained three 3-pointers in the first quarter to help Gainesville offset a strong start from Wayne (with seven first quarter points) and grab a 16-14 lead.
In fact the Red Elephants trailed just once during the contest -- following a three-point play from Stephens and an 11-10 Falcons advantage with 2:47 left in the first quarter. But Gainesville could not pull away in the first half, despite a 3-pointer from Luke Moore, who also finished with 10 points, and a three-point play from Tray Harrison opening up a 30-22 lead midway through the second quarter.
The Red Elephants were only starting to heat up, however, and began to mix their outside shooting with an improved inside presence in the second half, Cantrell, Watson and England each doing the damage to help Gainesville's continued momentum down the stretch and toward the 8-AAAAA tournament.
"The thing right now is that when we play badly, it doesn't extend -- it only lasts for a couple of possessions and not a whole quarter," Cottrell said. "I hope we can keep that up and build on that."
The Red Elephants will look to continue their hot streak at an equally warm Loganville on Tuesday -- a Red Devils team that had won six straight coming into Friday's battle with Clarke Central.
Flowery Branch will look to rebound at East Hall on Saturday in Rabbittown.