Photo by Ben Beitzel

Photo by Ben Beitzel

NORCROSS -- Like almost everyone else in the rocking and nearly-packed House of Blue, Malcolm McDonald thought that Jeremy Lamb would get the ball as the seconds ticked down in overtime.

"I'm sure that Centennial was keying on him," the Norcross senior said. "You expect he'll be the one to get the last shot."

Instead, it was McDonald -- known more for his rebounding and defense -- who was the offensive hero this time.

Marty Johnson made a nice bounce pass to the cutting McDonald on a backdoor play and the 6-foot-5 forward scored on the drive to put No. 1-ranked Norcross ahead with less than 10 seconds remaining in the overtime period.

When No. 6-ranked Centennial missed a shot at the buzzer, the Blue Devils had a pulsating 56-54 victory and a spot in the second round of the Class AAAAA boys state tournament at home against No. 4-ranked Meadowcreek on Tuesday.

Needless to say, the tournament brackets didn't give Norcross an easy draw.

"Of all the first-round games, I thought ours with Centennial figured to be the tightest," said Norcross coach Jesse McMillan. "We were probably the most evenly matched teams."

Centennial (20-9) fell to the No. 4 seed from rugged Region 6-AAAAA in part because of an ankle injury suffered by Vincent Bailey and had to play at the Region 7-AAAAA champion in the first round.

Bailey, a 6-foot-6 senior, was back to face to the Blue Devils (26-2) and had 15 points to go with 11 rebounds. In the end, though, it was enough as Norcross stretched its winning streak to 23 games.

Lamb, a 6-foot-4 University of Connecticut signee, had 21 points through regulation play, then let fellow senior McDonald play the hero role in overtime.

"I think I caught them off guard," said McDonald, who had nine points.

"I wanted us to get the best shot possible and he was wide open," senior point guard Johnson said.

The assist on the decisive basket was Johnson's game-high fifth to go with 11 points.

"Malcolm stepped up had made a big basket," said Lamb. "That's what we need to win the state championship. Everyone has to contribute."

Lamb, who had 11 rebounds, nearly took over the game in the third quarter, scoring all of Norcross' points in a 10-2 run. The Blue Devils went up by as many as 10 points and led 38-31 going into the fourth quarter.

Centennial, though, battled back to take the lead and it took Chris Bolden going 1-for-2 at the foul line with 30.2 seconds remaining for Norcross to force overtime. Georgia State signee Devonta White had missed two free throws for Centennial with 41.4 seconds on the clock.

"We had to keep our heads," McDonald said. "We let things get to us there for a little while. But we got our focus back."

When McDonald saw Centennial's Bailey move out on Johnson, he knew what he had to do: Head to the rim and finish strong.

"We keep talking about believing in yourself and having confidence," McMillan said. "That was probably the strongest move he made all night long. He finished hard at the rim and we really needed Malcolm to come up big there."

Centennial and Norcross -- located only about five miles apart -- have met four times in the past five state tournaments, including the 2007 state championship game. The Blue Devils have beaten the Knights each time.

"Every time we play, it's a battle," McMillan said.

"This was like a heavyweight fight," Centennial coach Allen Whitehart said. "It was whoever had the last punch.

"Norcross has a great tradition and a very good team. They are going to a tough team to play for anyone the rest of the way."