BETHLEHEM -- Despite starting the season 2-7 and 0-5 in Region 8-AAAAA play, Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell never doubted for a second that his group could still win the region title.
His Red Elephants made him look like a prophet Saturday night, holding off Salem 72-61 in the championship game at Apalachee High School. It's the first region title for Gainesville since winning the 7-AAA crown in 2009.
"Even back (at the start of the season) I felt we could," he said as he watched his team hoist the championship trophy. "We have great guys that work hard and believe in each other. I can't say enough how proud I am of them. We've been trying to get one and it feels good."
Region 8-AAAAA Player of the Year Shaquan Cantrell had his typical night for Gainesville, pouring in 21 points to go with six rebounds, three assists and two steals to pace the Red Elephants.
But it was the Gainesville defense, particularly over the final 2:53 of the game, that was the difference. The Elephants held the Seminoles scoreless over that span and used its defense to spark an 8-0 run down the stretch to put the game out of reach.
Three steals and forcing several bad shots from Salem in the final minute helped seal the deal for Gainesville.
"Really we've been playing good defense the last couple of weeks and that's a big key for us," Cottrell said. "I thought they did a great job at the end."
For a three minute stretch, however, Salem's Dedrick Turner almost single-handedly brought the Seminoles back from a 62-52 deficit midway through the fourth quarter. Turner repeatedly penetrated the Elephants defense to get to the foul line where he was 9-for-10 to pull the Seminoles within 64-61. But he would foul out with 1:40 left guarding Trey Harrison at mid-court.
"He's tough," Cottrell said. "You don't stop a guy like that but we had several guys guard him and we were able to get some fouls on him. Trey got him to reach and when he was out I felt a lot better."
Turner finished with a game-high 24 points and was 19-for-22 from the line.
The seeds for Gainesville's championship were actually sown in a 82-74 loss to nationally-ranked Christ School out of North Carolina midway through the season. They haven't loss since, going a perfect 11-0, including the region tournament.
"Even though we lost (to Christ School) we hung close with them the entire game. I think the guys realized then that they could play. That was probably the turning point for us winning this," Cottrell said.
Gainesville (20-9) never trailed against Salem (16-12) jumping out to a quick 3-0 lead on a Luke Moore 3-pointer nine seconds into the game. Salem's Mike Johnson got a put-back basket to cut it to 3-2. Gainesville used a 12-7 run to take a 15-9 lead on a basket from Cantrell on a feed from Jikeese Ruff. Salem would scratch back to cut the lead to 22-21 on a free throw by Turner but never got closer than three points the rest of the way.
Gainesville never led by more than seven points in the first half, however -- 38-31 at halfime -- when Chase England drained a 3-pointer from the left corner at the buzzer.
The Red Elephants worked their offense to near perfection in the first half, recording 10 assists on 12 field goals as they consistently found the open shooter. Harrison dished out four assists in the first half with Cantrell, Luke Maddox, and Ruff each having two in the first half.
The Red Elephants came strong in the third quarter using a 10-6 run to extend their lead to 48-37. The Seminoles answered that run with an 8-0 spurt to pull within 48-45 but Gainesville would take a 52-47 lead into the fourth quarter.
Moore would score four straight points for gainesville to push the lead to 56-49 Watson hit two free throws to cap the 10-2 run to give Gainesville its 62-52 lead.
Watson finished with 17 points and Moore added 15 points, including four timely 3-pointers, for the Red Elephants.
Demyon Greenwood scored 11 points and pulled down six rebounds for Salem. Mike Johnson had 13 rebounds for the Seminoles.
Gainesville will play host to Hiram -- the No. 4 seed from Region 5-AAAAA -- in the first round of the Class AAAAA playoffs, which begin next week.
Cottrell said they are ready to see how they stack up with the rest of Class AAAAA.
"I think we have a team that can make some noise," he said. "We get homecourt all the way to the semifinals if we keep winning so that will be huge for us. Hopefully we can keep playing well."