GAINESVILLE -- Deshaun Watson provided the firepower, but Keyontra Harrison's instincts may have proven the difference for Gainesville on Friday night.
Facing a 68-68 scoreline and a determined Salem, Harrison spoke up during a timeout.
"Tray suggested we press them out of the timeout; he felt we could force a turnover," said Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell, who sided with his senior point guard and watched his team follow the plan to perfection en route to a 74-68 win in Gainesville.
The Red Elephants deflected a Seminoles pass that Watson snagged and dumped to Jikeese Ruff for an easy lay-in and a lead with 38 seconds remaining that the home side would not yield -- Watson made sure of that.
The junior went 6-for-6 from the free throw line inside the final minute, including the game-tying buckets and two more with 15.2 seconds remaining that gave the Red Elephants (15-9, 9-6 Region 8-AAAAA) breathing room at 72-68 and helped clinch their seventh straight win.
The clutch late play gave Watson 13 points in the fourth quarter and was part of a 29-point night for the junior.
"Everybody knows what kind of player he is, no matter what the sport," Cottrell said of Watson, who appears to be finding his basketball rhythm at just the right time after helping lead the Red Elephants to a football state title in December. "He's just a competitor, and he raises his play the tougher the circumstances."
Thanks to the play of Jamaal Garner and Dedrick Turner, circumstances were tight indeed for Gainesville -- which jumped out to a 23-14 first quarter lead only to watch the two Seminoles lead the visitors back into contention.
Garner and Turner took turns pacing Salem, scoring 22 and 20 points, respectively -- including all but two of the Seminoles' 21 in the fourth quarter. The duo combined to give Salem a 54-52 lead minutes into the final period before Garner put up five straight points of his own for a 68-66 advantage with less than two minutes remaining.
Yet the Red Elephants have learned how to win games of all types of late, and Gainesville refused to back down this time, Watson sinking two free throws to knot the contest before the Red Elephants heeded Harrison's suggestion and clamped down on defense to force back-to-back turnovers and seal the victory with one field goal and four free throws.
"That was just a senior showing his leadership and experience," Cottrell said. "I'm so proud of these guys and what they've shown me."
Fellow Gainesville senior Shaquan Cantrell also played a key role, putting up 18 points on the night, including back-to-back lay-ins that kept the Red Elephants within one possession of the lead midway through the fourth quarter.
"Shaquan did a great job attacking the basket when we needed him to, and I also thought Chase England did a great job tonight. He didn't have many points (nine on the night), but he did a lot of big things for us inside and fought throughout," Cottrell said. "And Jikeese overcame some early fouls to play some great defense for us."
Luke Moore, also a senior, finished with 12 points for Gainesville, including eight in the first quarter, as the Red Elephants raced out of the starting blocks, with Moore and Watson each draining two 3-pointers.
"There was a lot of emotion tonight; there always is on senior night," Cottrell said. "I wish we would have kept our poise a little better, but the kids battled hard. Salem's a good team."
The Red Elephants' current win streak certainly puts them under that category as well, and Gainesville still has a shot at winning the No. 1 seed for the upcoming Region 8-AAAAA tournament -- after starting the season 1-6.
"I don't know how much that will matter considering how tight this region is," Cottrell said. "Everybody's so good, you're going to have to play your best to win any game in that tournament."
The Red Elephants will play host to Cedar Shoals in the regular season finale on Saturday, beginning with the girls varsity game at 4 p.m. and the boys game to follow.