In a defensive slugfest to decide the top spot in District 9-3A Tuesday night, the Gainesville Leopards came out as the last team standing.
Gainesville defeated Decatur 40-36 in an intense atmosphere at the Decatur gymnasium.
With a loud, standing-room crowd, Decatur (16-9, 2-1) just made too many mistakes down the stretch to outlast the Leopards (11-6, 3-0).
Opportunity missed at the charity stripe was the most glaring factor. Decatur ended the night 4 of 14 from the free-throw line.
“You can talk about their defense all you want, but they aren’t guarding you at the foul line,” Decatur coach Drew Coffman said. “We just didn’t play well tonight, and when you play good teams like this and don’t play well you’re in trouble.
“We played hard, but we just missed some easy buckets and shot poorly from the foul line.”
Despite the offensive struggles, Decatur’s defense played tough all night, only allowing 13 first half points.
“We defended well,” Coffman said. “It gave us a chance to win the game. We just needed a couple more stops and a couple more buckets.”
Decatur led most of the game and held a 23-22 lead with 1:28 left in the third quarter. Parker Slate then missed two free throws trying to pad the Decatur lead.
Gainesville’s Denzel Johnson immediately made the Eagles pay with a thunderous dunk through traffic, sending the far side of the gym into a frenzy.
The Leopards rode that momentum into the final frame. After Slate hit a 3-pointer to start the quarter, Gainesville responded with a 5-0 run and would never trail again.
“We can grow from this,” Coffman said. “If you want to win district championships and playoff games this is the type of environment you’re going to have to play in.”
Decatur got the game tied one last time at 34-34 with 1:49 left on an Austin Givens lay-up, but Gainesville’s David Moore immediately answered with a 3-point play.
The Eagles never got any closer, as the Leopards were able to dribble out the clock.
“They [Gainesville] did a good job,” Coffman said. “They won the game and deserve all the credit. We’ll make some adjustments the next time we play them, and I’m already excited for that day to come.”
Cain Lowe led Decatur with nine points. Dillon Billmire and Phillip Walker each had six. Slate added five.
Gainesville was led by Moore with 15 and Johnson with 13.
The Eagles will host Bridgeport Tuesday.