NORCROSS - The Norcross boys unfurled the banner proclaiming their third consecutive Class AAAAA state basketball championship, with former coach Eddie Martin doing the honors for old time's sake Thursday night.
Then Peachtree Ridge showed the Blue Devils just how difficult it will be to win a fourth in a row.
"Teams don't fear us now like they did before," new coach Jesse McMillan said. "There is no reason to right now."
Norcross ended up beating Peachtree Ridge 66-53 in their home opener, but the score couldn't be more deceiving. The Blue Devils are ranked No. 1 in the GaSports.com/GACA poll mainly on reputation at the moment.
Unable to handle Cory Blackwell inside, Norcross led Peachtree Ridge by just three points going into the final quarter and that edge came on a 30-footer by Jeremy Lamb at the third-quarter buzzer.
Norcross isn't just missing Martin, who moved to Greater Atlanta Christian. The Blue Devils don't have a Gani Lawal or an Al-Farouq Amin anymore and it showed against Peachtree Ridge.
"Guys like those cover up a lot of things," McMillan said. "We're struggling at the rim and we're struggling making decisions, too."
Norcross improved to 4-0 with the Region 7-AAAA thanks to its fourth-quarter defense and the foul line. Peachtree Ridge (3-1, 4-2) scored just four points in the final quarter and Norcross finished 26-for-36 at the stripe.
"It's a lot different without our All-Americans," said Norcross point guard Taariq Muhammad, a three-year starter. "Our young guys are still learning and we're not where we have to be yet. We need battles like this."
Before the game, new Peachtree Ridge coach Keith Arrington said, "I hope we can make it exciting." The Lions certainly did, giving Norcross a scare until the late going.
Blackwell, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds after dominating the first half. He had 16 of his points and 12 of his rebounds before intermission, which found Norcross leading 37-35.
"He's a great player," McMillan said. "We did everything we could to try to stop him."
Kahlid Mutakabbir added 18 points, 11 in the first half, and Darnel Jones had nine points and six assists for the Lions. But Blackwell, Mutakabbir and Jones had all but one of Peachtree Ridge's points.
Norcross placed four in double figures and had seven score. Malcolm McDonald, a 6-foot-5 junior, led the way with 15 points and also had a team-best 11 rebounds. Denzail Jones scored 13, while Muhammad added 11 points and Jeremy Lamb 11.
Muhammad dislocated his left little finger late in the game and Jones hurt his right elbow. "But we'll be OK," Muhammad said.
Despite the final score, Peachtree Ridge made Norcross sweat out the victory - literally.
McMillan wore a sweater vest, just like Martin always did. The new coach, a former assistant, said that he won't do it again, however.
"Only one man can wear one of those and making it through a game," McMillan said. "I'm soaking wet."
Norcross girls 59, Peachtree Ridge 22
The Norcross girls, ranked No. 4 in the GaSports/GACA poll, blitzed Peachtree Ridge 26-4 in the first quarter and beat the visiting Lions 59-22 to go to 6-1 overall and 4-0 in Region 7-AAAAA.
Vanderbilt-signee Tiffany Clarke scored 21 points in the victory, leaving the game for good after out-scoring Peachtree Ridge 10-1 to start the third quarter. The Blue Devils led 36-9 at halftime and 51-20 going into the final quarter.
Odesha Walwyn scored eight points and Bianca O'Neal had seven for Norcross, which has a first-place showdown at No. 2 Mill Creek on Monday night.
Brittany Jack and D'Atra Sawyer each scored seven points for Peachtree Ridge, 3-3 overall and 1-3 in Region 7-AAAAA. The Lions dressed just eight players for the game.