• Gainesville’s Diamond Smith gets ready to take a shot over Columbia’s Jacquise Brown during Tuesday night’s game (PHOTO BY ERIC JACKSON/Lake City Reporter).
    Gainesville’s Diamond Smith gets ready to take a shot over Columbia’s Jacquise Brown during Tuesday night’s game (PHOTO BY ERIC JACKSON/Lake City Reporter).

COMMENTARY: Tigers improving, but still not on Canes’ level

Same story, different night.

Sure, the Hurricanes aren’t as dangerous as they’ve been in previous years. But there’s still no doubt who the best team is in District 4-7A. Gainesville reminded us all – clinching the No. 1 seed with a 25-point rout over Columbia Tuesday night.

Columbia, behind a fiery backcourt, has closed the gap in league play over the last couple years, chasing perennial contender Gainesville. With a strong young core returning next season, look for the scrappy Tigers to keep challenging the top dogs.

In the meantime – evident enough Tuesday night – GHS remains king.

“They shot the ball better I think than they have probably all season, and they only scored 59 points,” Columbia coach Steve Faulkner told me. “So that tells me, defensively, we weren’t horrible but we just couldn’t put the ball in the hole…Obviously we have some work to do, hopefully we get an opportunity to play them again in the district championship. The gap is a little wider than I thought going in.”

Gainesville finishes undefeated in district play this season while No. 2 seed Columbia takes this loss on the chin. Entering Tuesday night’s finale with a 6-1 league record, the Tigers have certainly proven they’re a team to be reckoned with.

The Hurricanes also proved something this week: they’re not going anywhere.

“We’ve just won some really tough district games,” Gainesville coach Kelly Beckham said after the blowout. “We’re just happy to be moving on and staying undefeated in districts”

Like Hall of Fame coach Beckham, Faulkner too has elevated his program since taking the helm at Columbia in 2014. The former Hurricanes assistant coach, however, is still looking to knock off his former team, Gainesville – where he helped capture the 2009 state title.

He is now 0-8 against the Hurricanes since becoming Columbia’s head man.

“It’s frustrating from my perspective because I can’t beat them,” said Faulkner, who spent seven seasons at Gainesville as an assistant coach. “It’s a good goal. I love scouting them. I love playing against them, because I know exactly what they’re going to do. It’s cool. Kelly is a great guy, great coach – probably one of the greatest in the history of Florida. I hope one of these days I get a win on the other side.”

The older coach, Beckham, continues to dominate the I-75 rivalry against Faulkner. We’re not done yet, though. Expect for the two former colleagues to meet up again in next month’s championship game, a potential third meeting with much more riding on the game.

“I don’t really like it,” Beckham told me. “Steve is a great coach, always has his team well-prepared. But if I had my choice, I’d rather him not being on the bench.”

Love it or hate it, Gainesville flexed its muscle Tuesday night – but trust me, Faulkner and the Tigers aren’t too far behind. Columbia, no doubt, is trending upward. And with the postseason fast approaching, Faulkner might be the latest Kelly disciple to take his program to new heights. He has Columbia boys on the verge of its first playoff berth since 2013.

“I’ve been very fortunate honestly to have guys underneath me or who have worked with me who are really good coaches,” Beckham said. “It’s not just me, believe me.”

Contact Eric Jackson at (386) 754-0420 or at ejackson@lakecityreporter.com

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