With its season on the line, Buchholz laid it on the line.
But that’s ultimately where Gainesville High won the game was at the free throw line.
Theo Stephens made six free throws in the fourth quarter as GHS held off a furious Buchholz comeback for a 59-55 win at The Purple Palace to claim the Class 6A-District 2 title.
It was the first district championship since 2018 for the Hurricanes (21-6).
“At Gainesville High School it used to be a common occurrence,” said second-year GHS coach Mike Barnes. “It had been so long ago that I had to ask how long ago it was. It feels great. Glad to have a super senior class and I’m just really glad they’re here and they could experience it.”
The game was close early, with the ‘Canes taking an early 14-9 lead after one quarter.
But in the second quarter the purple and white began to pull away.
Senior Josh Hayes followed a miss with a two-handed flush to give GHS a 24-16 lead.
Then, with 1:32 to play in the half, senior Seth Childers drained a 3-pointer to put GHS up 27-19, followed by sophomore Decarion Debose’s driving layup to give the Hurricanes their largest lead, 29-19.
Childers affected the game in a number of different ways.
“I definitely did my job,” Childers said. “Some shots didn’t fall in the first quarter, but I still gave it my all defensively. I was rebounding and getting steals, and ultimately we got the win.”
But Buchholz (13-14), which entered the game 10th in Region 1 and needing a win to secure a postseason berth, got it back to single digits on a 3-pointer by senior Jacob Sterck with nine seconds to play in the half.
The Bobcats found themselves down double-digits again, 33-23, following a shot in the paint by Hayes.
After junior Palmer Walton’s 3-pointer trimmed it to 33-26, Hayes added another two-handed dunk for a 35-26 lead.
Hayes was almost unstoppable in the paint, finishing with a game-high 22 points.
“He’s a great asset to have and he’s a problem to deal with,” Barnes said. “Other teams are going to have to prepare for him. I’ve said it all year. I’m just really glad he’s here.”
However, a 3-pointer by senior Ryan Webster (16 points) cut the deficit to six, 35-29, keeping the Bobcats very much in the game.
Buchholz turned up the defensive pressure in the fourth quarter.
A steal by senior Tyler Gainey, who got fouled at midcourt, led to two Gainey free throws to make it 42-38, and then another steal by Walton, who converted two free throws, and all of a sudden it was a two-point game, 42-40, with 6:17 to play.
But Hayes answered with another bucket off an offensive rebound for a 44-40 lead.
“I felt like I was playing with a higher motor than I usually do,” Hayes said. “I felt like we had to get the job done so I just played even harder.”
Once again, the Bobcats answered.
An and-one by Walton made it a one-point game, 44-43, with 5:07 to play.
It was one of three and-one opportunities for Walton, who converted all three, as he scored all 16 of his points in the second half.
“He’s just a dog,” said Buchholz coach Blake Golden. “He’s an extension of me. That’s how I played when I played (at Buchholz) and I’m glad that my coaching is seeping into him and I just love everything that he does.”
After two free throws by Hayes, and a layup by Webster to make it a one-point game again, Buchholz took its first lead since the opening quarter.
Walton scored with 3:41 remaining and got fouled. He converted the free throw to give the Bobcats a 48-46 lead.
“I am absolutely so proud of this team,” Golden said. “It was a four-win team four years ago and it got us on the verge of the playoffs.”
They were on the edge of a victory, but that’s when Stephens took over.
The senior made two free throws with 3:17 to play to tie the game at 48, and then his runner in the paint gave him an and-one opportunity, which he converted for a 51-48 lead, and GHS never trailed again.
“He just turned it on,” Childers said. “He’s one of those guys that if you let him get going the other team’s not going to like it. He was able to get his groove finally.”
Stephens scored 11 of his 16 points in the second half, including eight in the final quarter.
A miss by Stephens with 1:32 to play was put back in by Hayes for a 55-51 lead.
“When he plays like that, we’re hard to stop,” Childers said. “I think he went out there and wanted to prove something. He wanted to send the Bobcats home.”
They did just that, but not without a Cat fight.
“When I first got here two years ago, I had the hash tag ‘Bobcats Rising’ and I just wanted people to know we’re on the come up,” Golden said. “I can tell you right now there isn’t one team in the state that wants to play us.”
The season came to an end for Buchholz, but the Hurricanes will host a regional quarterfinal next Thursday. Seedings and brackets will be released by the FHSAA on Sunday.
BOYS BASKETBALL – District championship game results
Gainesville 59, Buchholz 55
Columbia (Lake City) 68, Rickards (Tallahassee) 38
North Marion (Citra) 71, Santa Fe (Alachua) 69
Redeemer Christian (Ocala) 68, Oak Hall 58
P.K. Yonge 54, Interlachen 41
Williston 70, Wildwood 60
Hawthorne 48, Newberry 47