No. 2 Norcross holds off pesky Collins Hill 60-56

NORCROSS - Not too many teams care to try to extend their defense against Norcross with an athletic and experienced backcourt led by seniors Taariq Muhammad and Denzail Jones.

Then again, Collins Hill has a few speedy guards of their own and with the host and No. 2 state-ranked Blue Devils playing in their fourth game in five nights, the opportunity was there for the Eagles to beat Norcross at its own game.

And it almost worked, but the Blue Devils had just enough energy left in their tank - plus a combined 28 points from Muhammad and Jones - to outlast the pesky Eagles for a 60-56 win in an important 7-AAAAA game Tuesday at home.

"(Monday) night's game against East Hall was up and down," said Norcross (15-1, 10-0 in region) coach Jesse McMillan, whose team posted wins over North Gwinnett last Friday, Dunwoody the next night and East Hall on Monday. "Our guards got a lot of work and you could tell toward the end of the game. Give credit to Collins Hill. They were fired up and ready to play.

"I'm sure a lot of the mistakes we made toward the end of (Tuesday's) game was due to the mental exhaustion, not so much the physical. But I tell our three seniors - Taariq Muhammad, Denzail Jones and Zach Jones - now that we're in the second half of the season, this is where we need more of their experience."

That experience was definitely needed against Collins Hill. As much a threat as the Eagles' (13-4, 7-3) tall front court of 6-foot-10 Jeremy Olsen, 6-9 Derek Hood and 6-6 Reed Buck is, it was their trio of sub-6-foot guards who gave Norcross the most trouble.

With Olsen on the bench in early foul trouble, the Blue Devils built their biggest lead of the game at 25-12 following an Ariel Jones jumper in the lane with 5:01 to play in the first half.

That's when Collins Hill's tiny terrors Saah Nimley, Kameron Phillips and Charles Watson went to work.

The 5-7 Nimley and 5-9 reserve Charles Watson combined for eight points, which, combined with strong defense from Nimley and 5-8 Phillips, keyed a 10-4 run over the final 4:37 of the half to help pull the Eagles to within 29-22 at intermission.

Each time Norcross tried to build it's lead back up in the second half, Nimley, who finished with a game-high 18 points, helped bring Collins Hill back, and this time, with Olsen, who scored 11 points in the final 16 minutes, and Buck to help out.

The Eagles cut what had been as much as a nine-point Norcross lead to as little as 44-39 after three quarters behind six points from Buck, five from Nimley and four from Olsen.

A 3-pointer and shorter jumper from Denzail Jones in the first 54 seconds of the fourth quarter built the Blue Devils' lead back to 49-39, but once again, Collins Hill fought back.

Olsen completed a three-point play, followed by a 3-pointer from Phillips and another layup by Olsen - the latter two off Norcross turnovers - pulled the Eagles to within 49-47 with 4:22 remaining.

And when Nimley finished off a transition bucket off a long pass from Watson with 3:28 left, it completed a 12-2 Collins Hill run and evened the game at 51-51.

But just 13 seconds later, Muhammad pulled up on the right wing and drilled a 3-pointer for the last of his team-high 16 points to put Norcross back in front at 54-51.

"It's all about experience down the stretch," McMillan said of Muhammad's poise in the hitting the big shot.

A steal and two free throws from Jeremy Lamb, followed by a transition layup by Marty Johnson then gave the Blue Devils a 58-51 cushion with 1:50 left, but once again, Collins Hill wouldn't go away.

The Eagles got a 3-pointer from Buck and a jumper from Watson on their next two possessions, and then took over after another Norcross turnover with 1:09 left and a chance to re-tie the game.

It looked like they might take advantage when Nimley looked for Olsen on an alley-oop lob.

But the pass was just a little too high and tipped off Olsen's fingers and off the rim, and Muhammad pulled down the rebound, and Malcolm McDonald's stickback pushed Norcross' advantage back to two possessions at 60-56 with 31 seconds left.

"We always say never too high (on the alley-oop)," Collins Hill coach Josh Grayson said. "I don't know if I even want to look at it on film tonight."

Both teams missed key free throws in the final seconds, but Norcross managed to hold on to stay unbeaten in the region, while Collins Hill could only lament its near upset.

"We had a golden opportunity," Grayson said. "We caught them on a night that they probably were very tired, but I'm proud of my guys. We had a couple of missed opportunities, but I kind of feel like we went toe-to-toe with them."

Muhammad had five assists to go with his 16 points for Norcross, while Denzail Jones added 12 points and Jeremy Lamb added 10.

Nimley added five assists, four rebounds and two steals with his points and Olsen had a game-high 14 rebounds for another double-double for the Utah-bound post. Buck added 15 points for Collins Hill.