GAINESVILLE – It was like the elusive mirage in the desert.
You know, you can see, or think you see, the pond within reach but then it goes away.
That pretty much sums up Gainesville’s performance in a 40-37 loss to Denmark (16-10, Region 6-7A No. 3 seed) in the semifinals of the Region 6-7A boys tournament at home on Tuesday.
The Red Elephants (18-8, Region 6-7A No. 2 seed) had the lead, lost the lead, had it again, then lost it for good but got so close in the end, they left the gym with a nasty muddy water taste in their mouth.
And to add on top of the uncharacteristic performance, the loss dashes a chance to win the region title and a first-round state tournament home game.
“Our recipe for winning games has been forcing turnovers and making clutch shots. Tonight, that happened against us,” Head Coach Chuck Graham said. “We turned the ball over way too many times trying to make plays that weren’t there.”
The Red Elephants will play Lambert at South Forsyth on Thursday for third place. Game time is set for 6 p.m.
Denmark’s Sutton Smith set the tone in the first half, scoring eight of the Danes’ 10 first-quarter points and 14 total in the first half. Smith led the Danes with 16 points.
Last week, Smith only scored five points.
“We knew coming into this game that he was going to try to be more aggressive, and he did," Graham said. "I thought he played great in the first quarter and the half and kind of set the tone.”
But the Red Elephants found a way, behind Dylan Bobga in the first quarter, to jog out to a 14-10 lead after the first eight minutes of play.
Then the second quarter happened.
Gainesville turned the ball over seven times (24 total turnovers for the game) and couldn’t find the bottom of the net, going six minutes with a basket.
The lackluster offensive play allowed Smith and Kourtland Tolbert to methodically push the Danes ahead 18-17 on an 8-0 run with 2:07 left in the second quarter. Joseph Scott and Smith hit back-to-back buckets to end the half ahead, 22-17, while outshooting the Red Elephants, 12-3.
Gainesville began the third quarter with a turnover but found a spark from Eli Pitts’ 3-pointer with 6:32 to go. Pitts’ shot broke the six-minute scoreless streak. From there, the Red Elephants launched a 10-2 run on the back of Pitts, Robert Reisman and Charlie Reisman to take the lead, 27-24.
Jayden Hilliman and Smith, however, splashed the last two buckets of the quarter to push the Danes back in front, 31-29.
It was much of the same story in the final eight minutes. The Red Elephants turned the ball over seven more times, four straight, which allowed the Danes to extend their lead to the largest, 36-29. Gainesville did, once again, found a way to climb back into it on a Pitts’ 3-pointer and two free throws from Ced Nicely, cutting the lead to just one point, 36-35 with 3:18 to go.
Denmark, however, slowly accelerated again with Tolbert hitting four free throws in the final 2:40 to secure the win.
“I thought our energy was there but at times, we just didn't execute,” Graham said.
Robert Reisman led the Red Elephants with 11 points, while Eli Pitts chipped in 9. Dylan Bobga scored 8. Tolbert finished with 15 points for the Danes.
Lambert is up next for the Red Elephants. If they win, they’ll be a No. 3 seed in next week’s Class 7A state tournament.
“Lambert will be another tough game. We can live another day but we’re going to have to find a sense of urgency, and we will," Graham said. "We’ll play better on Thursday. We just need to prepare ourselves and get some confidence going into the state tournament."