Saturday July 24th, 2021 7:14PM

Basketball: Red Elephants hoping to move from title to title

GAINESVILLE -- In Gainesville's case, there is no rest for the successful -- at least not this week.

Sure Keyontra Harrison, Chase England, Caleb Hayman, Deshaun Watson and Rodney Lackey have been working endlessly since the start of the football season back in August. But after starring in the Red Elephants historic football championship run, the quintet has been re-invigorated by helping Gainesville on yet another title chase, featuring for the boys basketball team, which will take on Miller Grove at 8:45 p.m. Friday in Macon for the Class AAAAA crown.

"I'm a little bit (tired), but we can be tired on Saturday for the rest of the year," said England, a senior forward averaging 8.5 points per game, who also led the offensive line in football. "You don't get tired playing in these types of games."

Indeed, the Red Elephants are more than used to playing in big contests this season -- on both the hardwood and gridiron, as Gainesville won its first football title in December and will be playing in its first boys basketball state championship since 1984.

"We have a lot of good teams that came through this program, and we just want to continue that tradition," said Red Elephants wing Deshaun Watson (11.8 ppg), who is also the school's record-setting quarterback. "We just came together as one big family, took it one game at a time, and now we're here."

The route to Saturday's title tilt has featured a number nail-biting finishes -- four playoff wins by an average margin of 1.75 points -- in which a number of players stepped up to provide key moments, and all involved believe their late-game nerves were hardened by fall's football success.

"You get that feeling when you get into close situations, it lowers your pressure because you've been in those situations before," Hayman said. "We know how to react when things get tough and we don't panic."

Coach Todd Cottrell sees his team's inner-belief as a direct result of both their own drive and desire and by being around the multiple successes that Gainesville has produced in recent seasons.

"There's a lot of successful people at the school, and there's something to be said about being around successful people and programs," Cottrell said, noting the school's recent athletic championships in football, boys and girls golf (2012), soccer (2010) and deep playoff runs by the baseball team -- as well as academic achievements. "The kids see that and I think it helps them to work a little harder and make better choices. They're a hungry group and being around success only drives you harder."

That said, it took a few games for Gainesville's athletes that participated in football to make a successful transition to the basketball court.

"Everybody knew their role, it just took a few weeks for everybody to execute their role like they're supposed to," England said. "I would say after the Salem overtime loss (77-74 on Jan. 8), that's when everybody started getting back in the groove of things. Our only loss since then was Christ School game."

The Red Elephants have rolled since the defeat to the nationally-known North Carolina program, reeling off 15 straight victories that included a Region 8-AAAAA crown and the team's first state semifinal berth since 2009. But right now for Gainesville, the only focus is on snaring win No. 16.

"They've found ways to win. They've played well, and they keep getting better," Cottrell said. "Hopefully they have one more win left. They're playing as a team; that's the most rewarding thing. There's a lot of guys being unselfish, stepping up when they have to. I'm very proud of them."

After a whirlwind few months, the Red Elephants (23-9) know that knocking off four-time defending state champ Miller Grove will be far from easy. But after what they've already achieved, Gainesville's players believe that good things will happen if they can simply stick to the formula that's served them well so far.

"We've just got to keep fighting and pushing, make history again, and win another title," said Watson, who would love to help his team to its first crown since back-to-back championships in 1983-84. "It's real crazy. God has blessed us."

-- WHEN: 8:45 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: Macon Centreplex, Macon
-- RADIO: AM 550/102.9 FM
-- RECORDS: Gainesville 23-9, Miller Grove 29-3
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