Staff Photo: John Bohn Berkmar's C.J. Foster (5) shoots while covered by Norcross defender Jason Croom (50) during the fourth quarter of a boys first round class AAAAA playoff basketball game Saturday.
LILBURN -- Warned repeatedly not to rush the court, the home student section had to be content with the final-minute chant of "We are Berkmar! We are Berkmar! We are Berkmar!
The Patriots' fans had plenty to be proud of Saturday night. Berkmar had its breakthrough state tournament victory and it came against the defending Class AAAAA state champion.
"We're a step closer to our goal and to beat a team like Norcross gives us a lot of confidence going forward," Berkmar's Adonai Rogers said. "As good as this feels, we've got a lot more to play for."
The No. 4-ranked Patriots (22-7) led most of the way in beating Norcross 64-54 as six players scored between 14 and eight points to complement a rugged defensive effort and control of the backboards much of the game.
C.J. Foster, often Berkmar's forgotten starter, led offensively with 14 points, while 6-foot-9 Tim Rowe had 11 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots, and Brandon Thompson 12 points and five assists.
Rogers contributed 10 points, Yonel Brown scored nine and Tyler Rogers came off the bench to add eight points and eight rebounds for the two-time Region 8-AAAAA champions before a near-capacity crowd of more than 2,000.
"This means everything to these seniors," said Berkmar coach Greg Phillips, whose team lost in the first round each of the past two years. "That is who we were coaching for and that's who we were playing for.
"Playing at home as a No. 1 seed, you're supposed to win. But Norcross is the best fourth seed I've ever seen."
The Blue Devils, who struggled late in the season because of injuries, got Jason Croom (shoulder) back for the Patriots and the Tennessee football signee did all he could to keep Norcross (16-12) in the game. But Berkmar wasn't to be denied this time.
The Patriots started 1-14 in Phillips' first season before finishing strong and making the state tournament in 2010. A first-round loss wasn't unexpected that year, but losing by a point to Roswell, coached by his brother Ty, was a bitter disappointment to Phillips and his team a year ago.
Now the Patriots had to face tradition-rich Norcross, where Phillips worked as assistant with current Blue Devils coach Jesse McMillan.
Norcross, the No. 4 seed from Region 7-AAAAA, was in the state tournament for the 12th straight year and had made it past the first round nine consecutive times, winning four state titles.
In contrast, Berkmar had won just four playoff games since winning back-to-back state titles in 2000 and 2001.
But the Patriots hit two 3-pointers to start the game, scored nine straight points in the second quarter to go up by 10 and led 30-22 at halftime. A technical foul helped Norcross to get within five points in the third quarter before a 6-0 Berkmar run helped regain control. It was 46-36 going into the fourth quarter.
The Blue Devils, with Croom scoring 10 of his 11 points in the final quarter, got within six points on Brandon Goodwin's three-point play with 52 seconds remaining. That was as close as Norcross could get, however.
"Knowing Norcross, I didn't feel comfortable until there was 2 -1/2 seconds left," Phillips said.
Goodwin, who hit four 3-pointers, finished with 19 points. Derrick Herbert scored nine points, freshman Ricky Madison had eight and Myles Autry added seven for the Blue Devils.
Foster came into the game averaging just 4.9 points for Berkmar and nearly tripled that.
"They were in a triangle-and-two part of the night and you have to have someone else step up," Phillips said. "He did."
Now Berkmar will get another home game, hosting Marietta on Wednesday in the second round. Marietta, the No. 3 seed from Region 5-AAAAA, advanced with a 65-57 victory at Centennial.
For Berkmar, though, the next opponent didn't really matter. The Patriots just wanted to make sure that seniors Brown, Thompson, Tyler Rogers, Adonai Rogers and Zach Weiner didn't have their final season end with a first-round loss.