Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Norcross' Sheena Hartley, left, and Patrice Butler (34) cheer from the bench as the fourth quarter ticks down in Norcross win over Milton during the Class AAAAA state quarterfinals on Saturday.
CARROLLTON — It’s hard to believe the lead was only six points.
Milton ended its third quarter against the Norcross girls scoring 12 of the quarters final 16 points, cutting an 11-point halftime deficit down to six at 38-32.
But then, the fourth quarter happened.
“We played horrible defense tonight, I am not going to sugar-coat it,” Norcross’ Diamond DeShields said. “In the fourth quarter we took some pride in our defense.”
Norcross scored the first 13 points of the fourth quarter to turn a six-point game into a rout in the quarterfinals of the Class AAAAA girls basketball tournament, beating Milton 67-50 and advancing to next week’s Final Four.
“We are going to celebrate reaching it,” Norcross head coach Angie Hembree said of her defending champions making the state semifinals. “It’s a huge accomplishment. They’ve worked hard for it.”
In the fourth quarter, all that work went to defense. Milton didn’t make a basket until the 3:45 mark of the quarter when Tru Simms hit a 3-pointer. But by then, it was too late.
Norcross forced six turnovers in the fourth quarter, with five of them coming during the game-sealing run. Two came on consecutive possessions, the first from senior Dearica Hamby, who tipped the ball away and scored easily. Then came DeShields’. Her steal as Milton crossed turned into another easy layup, but was nearly a dunk.
“I wasn’t trying to dunk it,” said DeSheilds, who led all scorers with 22 points. “When I realized how high I was I turned my hand over, but you want to make sure you get the basket.”
She grabbed the rim as the ball fell through and Milton called timeout.
The Eagles spent the rest of the fourth quarter trying to delay the inevitable, using its timeouts and raking up fouls.
Norcross answered from the free throw line.
The Blue Devils shot 22 of 25 (88 percent) for the game and 19 of 20 (95 percent) in the fourth quarter.
Tori Carter scored eight of her 11 points from the free throw line in the final quarter hitting all eight of her attempts. Even sophomore Javonne Stanfield got in the act with two free throws after Hembree pulled her starters and Milton kept fouling.
“Our kids are going to compete,” Hembree said. “It makes it fun.”
Norcross jumped out to a quick 8-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to one of Alex DeMercy’s two 3-pointers and the first of three 3-point plays by DeShields. Milton cut its deficit to 11-8 with less than a minute to go, but decided not to let Norcross run the clock out in the final minute. The defensive pressure popped its own comeback with the Blue Devils scoring six straight to end the quarter and forcing the Eagles to take a timeout with 12 seconds left.
Hamby scored four of her eight points in the first quarter, sparking the Blue Devils off the bench.
“I like her coming off the bench,” Hembree said of the senior Wake Forest signee. “Starting is overrated. (When she comes in) automatically the energy level goes up.”
But the momentum ebbed for the Blue Devils to start the second quarter. DeShields and her teammates struggled to make shots from the perimeter and Milton pulled within 22-16 with 2:23 left in the half.
Enter Deshields again. Following a timeout she scored five straight points, including another 3-point play and the Blue Devils took a 29-18 lead into the locker room.
And after the game, the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to the 16-year-old DeShields, who waved as she walked off.
“Everyone wants to feel special on their birthday,” she said. “It was just the icing on the cake.”
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