On Tuesday night, Gainesville High’s Theo Stephens hit a tough bank shot in the paint with 10 seconds to play to lift the Hurricanes past Columbia (Lake City), 63-62, at the Purple Palace.
Columbia nearly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat as senior Ty’jahn Wright hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key on the Tigers’ final possession. However, it came about a second too late.
Wright’s teammates lifted him up in the air to celebrate the game-winning shot, but an official waved it off, preserving Gainesville’s first sweep of the Tigers since 2018.
“I didn’t think we played great down the stretch, but I was very proud of Theo for making that tough shot,” said Gainesville coach Mike Barnes. “We executed the sideline out of bounds play to perfection and then we were able to get a stop on defense at the end. It was a competitive game and we knew it would be, even with Broxey out.”
The visiting Tigers (10-6), who were playing without leading scorer Isaac Broxey (17.5 ppg), who was out of town, scored 10 points in 21 seconds to stun the ‘Canes early.
Senior D’Maceo Sheppard converted an and-one with 21 seconds left in the opening quarter for a 19-13 lead.
A 3-pointer by senior Tray Tolliver made it 24-13 and a steal and a layup by junior Jerome Carter (team-high 16 points) at the buzzer completed the 10-0 run for a 26-13 lead at the end of the opening quarter.
“I’m extremely proud of how our guys competed tonight,” said Columbia coach Steve Faulkner. “Hats off to GHS for making one more play than we did.”
The victory capped a 13-point comeback for the Hurricanes (13-4), who improved to 5-0 at home.
“We just weren’t ready to play tonight like we needed to be,” Barnes said. “We had a poor end to the first quarter. That just comes from our guys not being ready mentally for the game and that comes back to me. I need to do a better job of getting them ready mentally.”
After the 26-point outburst, Barnes switched his team into a 2-3 zone and held the Tigers to just 12 points in the second quarter.
“We really struggled against their zone in the second quarter which allowed them to get back in the game,” Faulkner said. “Ultimately, we had too many defensive breakdowns in the second half.”
Stephens, who finished with a game-high 18 points, caught fire in the second quarter with three 3-pointers, the first of which sparked a 6-0 run.
His third 3-pointer got the Hurricanes within four, 31-27, with 3:57 to play in the second quarter.
However, Sheppard (11 points) made another and-one late to give Columbia a 38-31 lead at the half.
In the second half, a dunk by App State signee Joshua Hayes (17 points), who converted a free throw for a 3-point play, brought the Hurricanes within one at 39-38.
Then, junior Anthony Leivonen’s bucket gave the Hurricanes a brief one-point lead at 40-39.
The game see-sawed back and forth as Wright made a 3-pointer to give Columbia the lead again at 42-40. However, Leivonen answered with a 3 of his own as GHS reclaimed the lead at 43-42.
Carter’s 3-pointer put the Tigers back on top at 45-43 and a 3-pointer by Wright made it 48-43.
Columbia carried a 52-47 lead into the final quarter but GHS senior S.J. Westbrook hit two 3-pointers, the second of which tied the game at 56-all with 5:48 to play.
Stephens, who failed to score in the third quarter, got hot again late in the fourth quarter. He gave GHS a 58-56 lead with 2:13 to play and his 3-pointer with 1:21 remaining put the Hurricanes up 61-58.
“Overall I felt like the first half we came out slow,” said Leivonen, who took two charges in the opening quarter. “But after that, we all came together and started playing hard and we started executing in the second half.”
Leivonen scored nine of his 17 points in the third quarter.
“He is an offensive-minded guy and he does not shy away from taking shots, and he shouldn’t because he’s a really good player and he can knock them down,” Barnes said.
Tolliver’s up and under score with 20 seconds to play gave Columbia a 62-61 lead and Gainesville called time out to set up the game-winner.
“It seems like every three or four games we seem to have a game like this and I tell the guys all the time that we’re really tough to beat when we play with energy and play with effort,” Barnes said. “But the last thing we talked about before the game was focus, and if we start the game focused then the sky’s the limit for us, but this does show a lot about our character, and they didn’t want to lose, and they kept battling.”
Columbia will travel to Clay (Green Cove Springs) on Thursday for a Class 5A-District 2 game, while Gainesville will play rival Eastside on Friday night.