GAINESVILLE -- Shots weren't falling; open looks were in short supply; and the lane occasionally resembled a mixed martial arts octagon.
So, in desperate need of offense, Gainesville turned to its defense -- and the Red Elephants got just enough of both.
Trailing Mays 40-38 with 1:30 remaining, the Red Elephants forced back-to-back turnovers that yielded three crucial points and then ripped down a huge rebound to seal a 41-40 state tournament victory on Saturday.
"It's playoff basketball; every possession counts, and we had to pick up the intensity," Gainesville senior Shaquan Cantrell said. "We came up with the plays when we had to."
Indeed, Cantrell's putback bucket -- two of a game-high 15 points -- pushed the Red Elephants in front with 45 seconds remaining, while Deshaun Watson came up with a vital rebound for the second time in as many playoff games, snatching Jalen Smith's attempt as it hung and then rolled off the back iron. Watson fell to the floor in the ensuing melee but maintained his dribble before being fouled with 1.8 seconds remaining.
The Red Elephants (21-9) inbounded the ball and ran out the clock to clinch a state quarterfinal berth for the first time since 2009.
"I'm just so proud of these guys; they find a way it seems like every time," Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said. "They've learned how to compete and win. And they don't lose their focus in big moments."
There were plenty of big moments throughout the contest, though most came on defense between two athletic teams that had trouble finding their shooting touch from the outset.
"We had some good looks early and they weren't falling -- and shots were hard to get in this game," Cottrell said. "We knew Mays was a strong defensive team, but we've played really good defense over the last month, and we made the stops when we had to tonight."
None were bigger than the pair Gainesville forced inside the final two minutes. Switching to a full-court press, the Red Elephants simply overwhelmed the Raiders (21-7) with numbers, building on the momentum that started with Watson's putback with 1:30 remaining. The basket halted a six-minute barren streak in the fourth quarter. Gainesville then pulled within 40-39 after Jikeese Ruff was fouled following the first Red Elephants takeaway, hitting one of two free throws. Cantrell then converted a putback of his own after the second takeaway for the Red Elephants, yielding their first lead since an 8-0 Mays run at the start of the fourth quarter.
Mays looked to hold for the final shot, and Smith, who scored a team-high 14, created an open look, but his short-range effort just missed, and Gainesville ensured there was no second chance.
"Those guys made some really nice plays, and they're a good team. But we just kept fighting..." Cottrell said, shaking his head and grinning. "These guys are just incredible."
The Red Elephants battled back from a first half deficit that grew as large as eight points -- thanks in large part to a six-point spurt from Cantrell in the second quarter. The senior converted a lay-up, drilled a 3-pointer and sunk a free throw to haul Gainesville back from 16-8 down and knot the score at 20-20 at the half.
"We knew coming in this would be tough," Cantrell said. "And even though the shots weren't falling, coach always tells us to keep shooting."
Mays (21-7) jumped ahead early thanks in large part to its work underneath the basket ripping down 14 first quarter rebounds -- opposed to seven for the Red Elephants. The Raiders got key baskets from Smith and John Lambert to build some early momentum. Yet Gainesville responded through a number of sources, including Cantrell, a key 3-pointer from Reed Tipton and a lay-in from Chase England.
"That's what makes this team so special," Cottrell said. "Different people can step up and contribute every night, and everybody is capable."
Luke Moore and Luke Maddox looked set to give the Red Elephants some breathing room in the third quarter, each sinking 3-pointers, while Caleb Hayman and Cantrell scored inside to help Gainesville on an 11-1 run and a 34-25 lead. Yet Mays answered right back through Smith, going on a 15-2 spurt that yielded a 40-36 advantage on Luqman Lundy's three-point play with 2:38 remaining.
Yet Mays couldn't put the contest away, sinking just one of four free throw attempts over the final eight minutes -- they finished 6 of 14 for the game from the free throw line -- leaving the door open for Gainesville's storming finish.
Watson finished with six points, while Hayman added four. Five other players finished with three points apiece. Lundy added seven for Mays.
Gainesville will play host to New Manchester -- which edged Stephenson 40-36 in the second round -- on Wednesday, giving a team with nine seniors at least one more chance to shine.
"This is the happiest time of my life," said Cantrell. "I just get a chance to keep going to work with my brothers. There's nothing like it."