GAINESVILLE -- Gainesville had every opportunity to watch its early momentum fade into disappointment on Wednesday.
An injury to Red Elephants standout Shaquan Cantrell and a hot-shooting foe conspired to whittle Gainesville's stellar start into a dead heat in the first round of the state playoffs.
As they have shown for much of the past five weeks, however, these Red Elephants can handle pressure. And they did so impressively against Hiram, facing down a potential game-winning shot and holding on for a 70-67 victory -- Gainesville's first postseason success since 2009.
"This is fun; this is what high school playoff basketball is supposed to be," Red Elephants coach Todd Cottrell said. "It's also nerve-wracking. But when we needed something tonight we just had another kid on the roster step up and provide it. That's the way it's been all season."
The final clutch plays of the night belonged to Gainesville's Deshaun Watson.
Clinging to a 68-67 lead, Watson skied to snag a rare second-half miss from Hiram's Leonard Foster with less than 10 seconds remaining -- hanging on to the ball inside a maelstrom of flailing arms before heading to the free throw line to gain a little breathing room with two made shots. The junior then forced a turnover on the ensuing inbounds pass that Tray Harrison charged down as time expired.
"Coach is always talking about boxing out, and that's what made it for me tonight," Watson said. "I saw (Foster) was a little awkward when he shot it, so I just got underneath the basket and jumped as high as I could."
Gainesville (20-9) joined the North Hall and Buford boys in the second round -- following a night when four area girls teams booked passage to the Sweet 16. (For a complete look at tonight's scores, scroll down.)
It was far from easy, however, as Hiram clawed back from an explosive Gainesville start that saw the Red Elephants bury five first quarter 3-pointers en route to a 29-16 lead. Cantrell drilled two of the treys and also fashioned two three-point plays, scoring 12 first quarter points. The senior, who scored a team-high 21 points, proved a thorn in Hiram's side for much of the contest -- until he clashed heads while defending Hornets guard Reed Dungan with 2:03 left in the third quarter, opening a cut above his right eye that took him out of the game until midway through the fourth quarter.
"I couldn't see what was going on; I was just going by the crowd's reaction," said Cantrell, who received medical attention near the corner of the court before returning with just minutes to play. "It's my senior year, I'm not going to let a busted eye keep me out of a playoff game."
Cantrell heard his teammates -- particularly Caleb Hayman -- step up in his absence. The senior forward put up two critical three-point plays and scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half, while Chase England also came up with nine points. And, of course, there was Watson, who scored nine in the fourth quarter on his way to 17.
"Deshaun's a special player, but so are the rest of the guys, and they just kept stepping up in big moments," Cottrell said.
Thanks to Hiram's Isaac Williams and Foster, the Hornets ensured there were plenty of big occasions inside the final minutes.
Foster's rangy frame and jump-shooting helped the Hornets to stay within four points or closer over the final five minutes, scoring 10 of his 14 in the second quarter. Williams also converted a three-point play and finished the night with a game-high 24 -- including 14 in the first half, as Hiram pulled within 39-35 at the interval. Dungan chipped in with 10.
Hiram also proved deadly from the free throw line, hitting 18 of 20 attempts (90 percent), and while Gainesville shot 70 percent, the Red Elephants hit just one of five attempts over the final two minutes -- misses that helped Hiram to take over possession with 26 seconds remaining and only trailing by one.
Gainesville proved equal to the task, however, forcing a leaning shot from Foster that Watson cleaned up to send the Red Elephants into the Sweet 16 for the first time in Cantrell's varsity career.
"I don't even feel the eye right now, but it feels great to win," Cantrell said. "(The playoffs in Class AAAAA) are way tougher than what we had played. Everybody's more athletic and bigger. But we can handle it. We adapt well, and I think we can go on winning."
Gainesville moves on to play host to Mays on Saturday. Mays defeated Creekview 61-53 in the first round.
WEDNESDAY'S STATE PLAYOFF BASKETBALL RESULTS:
Gainesville boys 70, Hiram 67
Shaw boys 54, Johnson 49
Fayette County boys 63, Stephens County 56
North Hall boys 61, Decatur 48
Buford boys 61, Cedar Grove 43
Woodward Academy boys 51, Dawson County 39
Kendrick boys 63, Jefferson 56
Spencer boys 70, Rabun County 58
SECOND/FIRST ROUND STATE PLAYOFF SCHEDULE*
*-Class A starts first round this weekend
Mays boys at Gainesville
Chestatee girls at River Ridge
North Hall boys at Morgan County
Gordon Central boys at Buford
Elbert County girls at Buford
Dawson County girls at North Oconee
Lovett girls at Rabun County
Lakeview boys at Aquinas
Calhoun County girls at Towns County