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Gwinnett wheelchair basketball team wins first state championship

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett Heat's Brice Croxton (30) celebrates with teammate Martinez Johnson (23) and Stephen Hobson (10) after defeating the West Georgia Wolverines 22-18 in the Adapted Sports wheelchair basketball state championship at The Arena At Gwinnett Center on Friday. The Heat completed an undefeated season as well as winning their first state championship.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett Heat's Brice Croxton (30) celebrates with teammate Martinez Johnson (23) and Stephen Hobson (10) after defeating the West Georgia Wolverines 22-18 in the Adapted Sports wheelchair basketball state championship at The Arena At Gwinnett Center on Friday. The Heat completed an undefeated season as well as winning their first state championship.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett Heat's Brice Croxton (30) drives to the basket against West Georgia's Sally Ann Heath (14) during the Adapted Sports wheelchair basketball state championship at The Arena At Gwinnett Center on Friday.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett Heat's Trintney Whitsel (21), Martinez Johnson (23), Derek Claros (22), Stephen Hobson (10) and Rony Jacob (44) get pumped up with head coach Michaela Istone-Haupt, center, in between periods of the Adapted Sports wheelchair basketball state championship against West Georgia Wolverines at The Arena At Gwinnett Center on Friday.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Keitra Douglas looks good in her gloves.

The junior from Berkmar wears bright red and white gloves mostly for protection from callouses when playing for the Gwinnett Heat. But on Friday, the grip made the biggest difference.

With less than two minutes left in overtime of the Adapted Sports wheelchair basketball state championship, Douglas snagged a loose ball as it sailed over her head. The steal turned into a breakaway that ended with a Martinez Johnson layup that broke an 18-18 tie and gave the Heat its first lead of the game. From there, the Heat never looked back, winning 22-18 to finish the season undefeated and win the team's first state title.

"I didn't think I was going to get it," Douglas said of the loose ball. "Winning is fun."

Finally taking a lead in the game made all the difference to Johnson, who remembered the 2010 loss well.

"I felt like that was the start of something great," Johnson said of the go-ahead bucket. "We fought as a team and we brought it out."

And they had plenty of fighting to do.

As with many of its games this year, Gwinnett struggled offensively in the early periods and were lucky to trail just 8-4 at the midway point Friday.

"We had a couple of passes not go our way, just the little things," said head coach Michaela Istone-Haupt.

The Heat fought back to tie the game at 10-10 early in the fourth period (of six) with North Gwinnett senior Brice Croxton scoring four of his eight points, including hitting the tying bucket on a spinning shot.

"We always start out a little slow on offense, but once we settled down thing started rolling pretty smoothly," Croxton said. "I was surprised how low scoring the game was."

But the tie didn't last long and suddenly the Heat found themselves trailing 18-10 after West Georgia's Douglas Johnston scored six straight points all on layups in the paint.

"That scared us a little bit, but we kept our composure," Croxton said.

And they kept chipping away.

For the next 10 minutes of regulation, the Heat defense didn't allow a point and the pair of Johnson and Croxton slowly dug their team out of the hole. With three minutes left, it was Johnson hitting a runner to tie the game at 18, a score that lasted into overtime.

Gwinnett had a chance to win in regulation with Johnson on the free throw line with 16.3 seconds left, but the senior from Buford missed both shots.

"I wanted to end it," he said.

But with a press defense the Heat implemented in the second half, combined with West Georgia's Johnston fouling out, Gwinnett didn't allow a point for the final 13 minutes of the game.

It was the defense that led to the Douglas' steal and also to Johnson's game-sealing layup in the final minute to end the day with a game-high 14 points.

Johnson, Croxton and Rony Jacobs are the three seniors on the team and have been with the program since it began.

"It's very exciting, I am so proud," Istone-Haupt said. "It's more important this year because the kids around the program have been here for a few years."

And for Johnson and the others who lost in 2010 the second chance made all the difference.

"I wanted it," Johnson said. "I wanted to have a championship."

Video

Gwinnett Heat - Wheelchair Basketball State Champs

The Gwinnett Heat won the Adapted Sports wheelchair basketball state championship in overtime on Friday, March 9, 2012 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

The Gwinnett Heat won the Adapted Sports wheelchair basketball state championship in overtime on Friday, March 9, 2012 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.