Photo: Brian Kamer Norcross forward Jason Crooms (50) defends as Mill Creek guard Trevon Shaw (14) tries to shoot around him during Friday night's game at Norcross.
NORCROSS -- The Mill Creek boys have made it to the state tournament twice in the past three seasons and reached the AAAAA quarterfinals last year. But despite the Hawks' recent success, one big hurdle remains.
Mill Creek went into this season having never beaten Region 7-AAAAA bully Norcross. So far, the Hawks still haven't.
The defending AAAAA state champion Blue Devils hit Mill Creek with a third-quarter blitz and remained the only unbeaten team in the region with a 58-49 home on Friday night.
The Hawks, which opened the season with 11 consecutive wins, were ranked No. 4 in AAAAA last week before a loss to Peachtree Ridge and are now two games back of first-place Norcross in 7-AAAAA despite bouncing back for a 71-70 overtime victory over North Gwinnett on Tuesday.
"We didn't play as well as I'd hoped," Mill Creek coach Chad Rogers said. "But give Norcross credit. I thought they played very good defense on us in the second half."
Picking up the pressure was the theme of Jesse McMillan's halftime message to his Norcross team and the Blue Devils obviously took their coach's words to heart."
"Our motto has always been 'Defend to win,' and we weren't doing that in the first half," McMillan said. "They hit five 3-pointers and all were uncontested. We challenged some guys and they responded by showing the pride and passion we expect."
Norcross (9-6, 7-0) turned a four-point halftime deficit into a 12-point lead with a 19-3 run and ended up outscoring Mill Creek (13-3, 4-2) by 21-6 in the third quarter to take a 49-38 lead.
The Hawks got back within 52-48 with less than three minutes remaining, but Norcross regained control and put the game away.
Derrick Herbert, a complementary piece on last season's title team, led the way with 23 points. Seven of them came in the decisive third period after the senior point guard had kept the Blue Devils close with 12 first-half points.
"It's been a learning process for him," McMillan said. "Last season he was strictly a facilitator and this year we need him to score as well.
"He makes some mistakes along the way, but he's doing what we need him to do to help us win."
With just Herbert and football standout Jason Croom having played regularly last season, Norcross started 0-4 under the weight of a rugged early schedule. But the Blue Devils are unbeaten at home with second-place North Gwinnett coming in on Tuesday for another region showdown.
First, though, the Blue Devils will make a trip to Ohio for the Flying to the Hoop Showcase in Dayton on MLK Day.
"We leave on Sunday and come back on Monday night, so there won't be much turnaround time before we play North Gwinnett," McMillan said. "But it is a great event and we tell our kids that you play back-to-back in the state tournament, so you might as well get used to it."
Trevon Shaw scored 10 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter trying to get Mill Creek back in the game, but Norcross had already done too much damage in its third-quarter breakout.
"We let them get to the rim and we made too many turnovers," Rogers said. "That and their offensive rebounding is what beat us."
Norcross big men Croom and Harold Givens sat much of the first half after drawing two fouls. But both helped the Blue Devils take charge in the second half, with Croom grabbing seven rebounds and scoring eight points.
Myles Autry had 12 points to join Herbert in double figures. Brandon Goodwin scored nine.
Mill Creek jumped to an 11-3 lead and James Holder came off the bench to hit a trio of 3-pointers in the second quarter after Norcross started to get going.
The Hawks made seven 3-pointers, with Shaw also finishing with three. But just two in the second half and none in the decisive third period.
Norcross and Mill Creek played three times last season and that could well be the case again this time around.
"They're a good team, but they aren't invincible," Rogers said. "We'll fix some things and be ready for them the next time.
The regular-season rematch is Feb. 7 at Mill Creek. A postseason meeting could well follow.
Norcross girls 62, Mill Creek 48
Diamond DeShields scored 15 of her 26 points in the first quarter and the two-time defending state champion Norcross girls remained unbeaten in Region 7-AAAAA with a 62-48 victory over Mill Creek.
Shayla Cooper had 17 points for Norcross (13-2, 7-0). Tori Carter added 11 points and Jasmine Kemp grabbed eight rebounds as the Blue Devils ran their winning streak to 11 games.
Mill Creek (11-6, 3-3) got 14 points from Tamarr Williams. Jasmine Carter scored 10.
With DeShields dominating early, Norcross led 22-11 at the end of the first quarter. She had just one second-quarter point, though, and Mill Creek got within five points before the Blue Devils took a 33-23 lead into intermission thanks to a late 3-pointer by Bri Williams.
DeShields got back on track with 10 points in the third quarter and Norcross led by as many as 18 points before taking a 50-36 advantage into the final quarter. The 6-foot-2 junior played only briefly the rest of the way and didn't score.
Norcross plays Tennessee power Riverdale today at Wesleyan, then hosts North Gwinnett in a showdown for first place in Region 7-AAAAA on Tuesday.