Langston Hughes senior Landers Nolley said his team’s motto that “Only Grinders Survive” is more than just a phrase that fits on a T-shirt.
“We’ve been grinding this whole year,” Nolley said. “Six o’clock morning practice, 3:30 afternoon practice … back-to-back … we earned it.”
Hughes beat Gainesville in the Class AAAAAA boys final for the second straight year, this time breaking the Red Elephants’ hearts with an 85-78 victory at Georgia Tech.
“We knew if we kept the game close we’d have a chance,” Hughes coach Rory Welsh said. “We though Gainesville is the best team in the state – hands down. But they hadn’t played a ton of close games this year. We figured if we kept it within striking distance and played our best basketball in the second half, we’d have a chance to win the game.”
It also helped that Hughes had Nolley on the roster. The 6-foot-7 Virginia Tech signee finished his career in style, scoring 34 points – including 17 of 20 from the line -- and adding 10 rebouns, six assists, three steals and a blocked shot. It was the third straight year Nolley has been part of state championship team; he won a title in Chicago before moving to Fairburn for his junior season.
“Landers is all about winning,” Welsh said. “He does whatever is asked of him to do. He’s a very coachable kid and he has the best work ethic in the state. Going from an unknown to the top guy in the state is a testament to his work ethic and coachability.”
Hughes (27-5) also got 17 points from Tyler Smith, who Welsh called “the best unsigned player in the state,” and 14 points, six rebounds and five assists from Tyrel Morgan.
Gainesville (24-7) was led by Bailey Minor with 17 points, Kajuan Hale with 15 points and five assists, K.J. Buffen with 13 points and five rebounds, an Rafael Rubel with 12 points.
Gainesville – with former Red Elephant and NFL star Deshaun Watson sitting in the second row -- went on a 16-3 run in the second quarter and took a 40-27 lead on a layup by Buffen with 3:11 left. But Hughes dug in and closed the first half with a 13-5 run of its own, the last bucket coming on a Josh Butts jumper that bounced around the rim and fell through the hoop as the half expired. Gainesville led 45-38 at the half.
Buffen picked up his fourth personal foul with 3:26 left in the third quarter and was taken out of the game. After his departure Hughes went on a 13-2 run to take a 63-57 lead with 1:39 remaining. Hughes took a 65-59 lead into the final quarter.
Gainesville made one final run and cut the margin to 80-77 when Rubel hit a 3-pointer with 46.5 seconds. But Papa Samba broke the pressure and scored a basket and the Panthers were able to pull away at the end from the line.
“It was about weathering the storm,” Welsh said. “Basketball is a game of runs. They’d make a run and we’d make a run. We’ve got to finish the last run and we were fortunate enough to do that.”