ATLANTA — An emotional Bailey Minor summed it up for the Gainesville boys basketball team.
“They’re a good team and it’s hard to know exactly how things changed,” the senior said after another gut-wrenching loss to Langston Hughes, this time 85-78 in the Class 6A championship game at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion.
The Panthers had knocked the Red Elephants out of last year’s playoffs with a 72-69 overtime win on Gainesville’s home floor.
One huge explanation could be the Panthers’ Landers Nolly. The Virginia Tech-signee poured in 34 points to go with 10 rebounds and 6 assists as Gainesville had no real answer defensively for the 6-foot-7 wing. They tried double-teams, tall players like KJ Buffen and Jarrel Rosser, and even smaller, quick guards like Brent Kelly and Kujuan Hale.
Nothing seemed to slow him down. Nolly almost single-handedly put Gainesville in serious foul trouble in the first half as Rosser and Buffen ended up with three fouls each and Hale had two.
“He’s a great, great player. We did everything we could but he showed how good he is,” Gainesville coach Benjie Wood said. “But our kids fought hard. That’s all you can ask.”
Gainesville never trailed in the first half but Nolly, with 16 points, kept Hughes in the game enough to trail just 45-38 at halftime.
The game was tied twice, at 5-5 and 21-21 at the end of the first quarter. In between, the Red Elephants used a 12-4 run, sparked by five points and two steals from Rafael Rubel for a 17-9 lead. The Panthers, however, closed out the period with a 7-0 run to tie the game.
The Red Elephants offense exploded in the second quarter behind Hale and Xavier Bledson. The pair combined for 12 points to ignite a 21-7 spurt and a 42-28 lead with 2:05 left in the half. But again the Panthers responded, closing out the half on a 10-3 run with Josh Butts throwing in a runner at the buzzer to trim the lead to 45-38.
However, it turned into an all-too-familiar script. And what was supposed to be the Hollywood ending turned into another horror show in the second half.
Last year’s quarterfinals saw Gainesville lead by nine in the first half only to watch the Panthers rally to take the lead in the fourth quarter. But unlike last year’s game, the Red Elephants could not find a way to get even.
Rubel, Buffen, Kelly, and Hale all missed missed wildly on 3-point attempts. But the turning points were two huge technical fouls in the second half on the Red Elephants that gave the Panthers an eight-point swing.
“One the refs said one of our guys said something to him, but he was talking to his teammate. The other one the ref said one of our players forearmed him. Those were huge, obviously, since they made the free throws,” Wood said.
After the two technicals and a series of Hughes fastbreak baskets, the Red Elephants found themselves down 78-67 with just 1:47 left. But they very nearly staged a comeback for the ages.
Minor converted a four-point play with 1:38 left and Hale was fouled on the inbounds and hit 1 of 2 free throws to pull within 78-72. Gainesville stole the next inbounds and Rubel tipped in a missed shot to get them to 78-74 just 3 seconds later for seven points in 12 seconds.
Rubel then stole a pass in the Red Elephants press on the ensuing possession but his driving layup rolled off the rim and Nolley rebounded the miss and was fouled. He converted both free throws for an 80-74 lead with 1:13 left.
“Bailey had a great night,” Wood said. “We have a lot of great players on this team and it was just his time. We felt pretty good when we got it back to four and who knows if that layup drops.”
Rubel later connected on a 3-pointer to make it a one-possession game at 80-77 with 46 seconds left, but the Panthers hit 5 of 6 free throws from there to seal the win.
Minor finished with a team-high 17 points on 7 of 10 shooting for the game, including two 3-pointers, in his best postseason performance in his final game for the Red Elephants.
“I just tried to do whatever I could to help the team,” Minor said. “We’ve been together since we were little kids in park-and-rec so we just played for each other.”
Buffen finished with 13 points before fouling out. Hale added 15 points and Rubel 12 for Gainesville.
A dejected Wood said despite coming up short in the program’s bid for its first state title since 1984, they have nothing to hang their heads about.
“I’m proud of my kids and I’m proud of their effort,” he said. “We’ve gotten to watch them grow not just as players but as young men. They brought a lot of excitement to the school and the community and should be proud of what they’ve accomplished.”