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Usual suspects, plus one, heading to the Final Four

File Photo Norcross' Diamond DeShields soars past North Gwinnett's Lexie Brown during a game last season.

File Photo Norcross' Diamond DeShields soars past North Gwinnett's Lexie Brown during a game last season.

For the most part, Gwinnett's high school basketball teams still alive as the state tournament moves into the Final Four this week -- all girls teams -- represent the usual suspects.

Two-time defending state champion Norcross will be back at The Arena at Gwinnett Center for the third straight season to tip off the Class AAAAA semifinals Wednesday at 4 p.m.

Meanwhile, Buford is shooting for its third straight Class AA title when it heads to the Macon Centreplex on Thursday, while Wesleyan will be making its ninth trip to Macon in the last 10 years for Wednesday's Class A semifinal.

"It's nice to have consistency in our program," said Wesleyan coach Jan Azar, whose No. 1 state-ranked Wolves (27-4) meet fifth-ranked Taylor County (26-1) in Wednesday's 4 p.m. semifinal. "When our seniors leave, they've given something to ones who come after them. Our older players have done a tremendous job of preparing the younger players (for the Final Four) year after year."

The only relative newcomer among this year's local Final Four contingent is North Gwinnett, which will be making just its third state semifinals appearance overall, and the first since 1963, when the fourth-ranked Bulldogs (26-3) meet No. 7 Hillgrove (25-4) in Thursday's 7 p.m. Class AAAAA semifinal at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.

But Bulldogs coach Bryan Sellers doesn't expect his team to come into their initial Final Four wide-eyed.

"Actually, it's kind of funny," Sellers said while recalling the scene after the Bulldogs had earned their way into the semis with a 68-43 win over Mill Creek behind 20 points from Ariel Johnson, 19 from Peyton Whitted and a triple-double from Lexie Brown on Saturday in Carrollton. "In the lockerroom afterwards, there was excitement because it's a great accomplishment. But ... I was talking to one of the parents, and they said the kids didn't really seem that excited. I guess that's because we've talked about how it's nice to get to the Final Four, but we want to win our last game. They're trying to keep their focus on basketball.

"It's new ground for us, but that might even be beneficial for us. They just want to play basketball. The girls have played basketball together for a while now, so we have good chemistry. Besides, it seems like Norcross was the new kid on the block not too long ago. Wesleyan was the new kid on the block at one point. So, we're not trying to look at the magnitude of the game. We're just trying to look at the game itself."

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have several players with a championship pedigree to bring to a Final Four appearance.

Norcross (26-5), which faces a rematch of last year's title game against top-ranked McEachern (31-0) on Thursday at 4 p.m., has 11 players who were on the roster from last year's title, including three -- juniors Diamond DeShields and Javonne Stanfield and senior Patrice Butler -- who were a part of both the Blue Devils title teams.

Meanwhile, Buford (24-7) takes no fewer than five players -- including juniors Kaela Davis, Maya Dillard and MacKenzie Darrah, plus senior JaQwannia Brown -- with championship experience into its Class AA semifinal against Brooks County (24-6) at 7 p.m. Thursday, including senior Andraya Carter, who has played in all three of the Wolves' championship triumphs.

But nobody is more battle-tested in title games than Wesleyan.

There has been just one year in the last decade that the Wolves haven't made an appearance in Macon, and they've capture championships in either Class A or AA in eight of the last 10 seasons.

And this year's team is no exception, with nearly all of the Wolves having dressed out for at least one title run, led by seniors Holli Wilkins, Jordan Frazier, Missy Byrd and Kaelyn Causwell.

"We return 11 players from last year," Azar said. "We really have only three players who weren't on the team, and they were there watching in the stands. That is nice this year to have that kind of experience."