Staff Photo: John Bohn Norcross defender Diamond DeShields (22) covers Parkview's Genesis Perrymond (30) during the fourth quarter of a state Class AAAAA quarter final girls basketball game played Saturday at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. Norcross defeated Parkview 63-46. DeShields was injured early in the game, she continued playing with a bandage over her right eye.
North Gwinnett's Lexie Brown
Norcross' Diamond DeShields
Wesleyan's Holli Wilkins
Buford's Kaela Davis
40426 total votes.
The Final Four of the Class AAAAA girls state basketball tournament basically comes down to a cross-matching of two sets of rivals.
Gwinnett County and Region 7-AAAAA foes Norcross and North Gwinnett will take on Cobb County and Region 4-AAAAA rivals McEachern and Hillgrove respectively today at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
Each matchup of state-ranked teams carries plenty of intrigue.
While pairing of No. 3 Norcross (26-5) and top-ranked McEachern (31-0) carries the earlier tip-off time at 4 p.m., it does appear to be the marquee matchup -- at least, on paper -- if for no other reason, the history between the two teams.
A year ago, the Blue Devils earned their second straight state championship with a thorough 61-36 win over the Indians in the title game.
And many of the key figures in that victory are back, including defending Daily Post Player of the Year Diamond DeShields, who is among Gwinnett's leading scorers at 21 points per game, fellow junior Shayla Cooper and seniors Jasmine Kemp, Patrice Butler and Tori Carter.
However, Norcross coach Angie Hembree said her team's focus this afternoon is much more narrow.
"We're not trying to win three (straight titles), we're trying to win this one (game)," Hembree said. "We're not trying to win the title (today), we're trying to get to the championship game. Nothing else."
McEachern has also brought back some key figures in last season's runner-up team, including Syracuse signee Pachiyaanna Roberts, and added some key newcomers like freshman guard Te'A Cooper, already verbally committed to North Carolina, and Ole Miss-bound senior Destinie Gibbs.
"They're loaded," Hembree said of the Indians. "They're formidable. Their speed and ability to score in transition is a big concern. They score in spurts. ... So you have to stay out of those runs and handle their pressure.
"We're not kidding ourselves. This is going to be a challenge."
And the Indians gained a measure of revenge by opening this season with a 55-43 win over the Blue Devils back in November behind 24 points from Dominique Wilson and 19 from Roberts.
However, Hembree wants her team focused more on the present, rather than the past, coming into today's rubber game.
"Any coach will tell you that for us and McEachern, we're not the same team, hopefully, at the beginning of the season that you are at the end," Hembree said. "So, you can't really put stock (in the first meeting this season). It seems like forever. We both hope we're better now.
"For us, it's not so much as going back to look at what they did (in the first game), as going back to look at us -- what do we do to improve?"
By contrast, the history between No. 4 North (26-3) and seventh-ranked Hillgrove (25-4) is considerably less extensive.
The Bulldogs and Hawks will meet for the first time when they take the floor tonight at 7, which North coach Bryan Sellers admits will be a bit of a change for his team.
"We've been fortunate if you look at who we've played so far (in the state tournament)," Sellers said. "We played South Gwinnett, who we played earlier in the (regular) season. We played Mill Creek, who we played twice before this season. And we played Woodstock last year. So, we were kind of familiar with each of them. Hillgrove is new to us."
The Hawks will also be a formidable foe, featuring 6-foot-1 post MacKenzie Engram, school single-season and career assists leader Celina Rodrigo and shooting guard Meredith Heyer, who shared high-scoring honors with Engram at 16 points in Hillgrove's semifinal rout of North Cobb.
"They've got that big girl (Engram) inside, (Heyer) is a good shooter and (Rodrigo) is a very good point guard," Sellers said. "They remind me a lot of Woodstock, and they're in the Final Four for a reason."
Like Hillgrove, North has also been spreading production around throughout its postseason run.
While Maryland commitment Lexie Brown and fellow junior Peyton Whitted have cast the most noticeable shadow, senior guard Ariana Johnson has been a huge contributor, averaging 18 points per game in the tournament, including 20-point outings in North's last two wins.
With sophomore Baylee Rexing joining Brown, Whitted, Johnson and Jordan Hyatt in the starting lineup in January, the Bulldogs seem to be jelling at the right time.
"Obviously, Lexie and Peyton get the most attention," Sellers said. "That leaves the other girls kind of under the radar, but the girls have bought into what we're doing. they understand each other and what our strengths are. That bodes well for our confidence."