Staff Photo: John Bohn . North Gwinnet's Chris Bolden (25) attempts to dunk over Norcross's Tyler Williams (32) during a game this past season.
A few days had passed, yet the sting of a season-ending loss was still there for Zach Smith.
As the Class AAAAA state basketball playoffs entered the Final Four round at the Arena at Gwinnett Center, the North Gwinnett boys head coach wished his team was still playing. A brutal draw in the brackets meant a gauntlet for the Bulldogs, who lost last weekend to powerhouse Milton in the state quarterfinals.
As much as Smith wanted more for his team, he couldn't be disappointed in its breakout season. North finished with a 21-10 record and had its most successful season in nearly a decade.
"I'm really proud of how our guys did this year," Smith said. "They put North Gwinnett basketball back on the map. We made the Elite Eight for the first time since 2004 and won the regular season region championship for the first time since 2003.
"They accomplished a lot this season and laid the foundation for the future success of North Gwinnett basketball."
North went 18-10 in Smith's first season, but a late-season swoon culminated with a first-round loss to Wheeler in the state playoffs. Hungry for more this year, the Bulldogs put together a solid season with the help of high-scoring guard Chris Bolden.
Bolden, a Georgia Tech signee, transferred from Norcross in the offseason and boosted a lineup that returned fellow seniors A.J. Clements and Kwesi Abakah.
Those players are part of a strong senior class that also includes Mac Howard, Ryan Copeland, Danny Crawford and Justin Techo. Clements and Abakah are expected to join Bolden and Howard (who will play for Berry College) as college signees.
"That's a tough senior class to lose," Smith said. "We've got seven seniors and four are going to play college basketball. They're going to be tough to replace, that's for sure. These young guys are going to have to step up."
Two of those young guys started this season as freshmen --T.J. Howard and Kam Calhoun.
Both will play bigger roles as sophomores, but they also did plenty as ninth-graders. Howard had 11 points and a trio of big 3-pointers in a second-round revenge win over Wheeler, and Calhoun was the hero of that state-playoff victory when he hit the game-winning shot with 4.2 seconds left in overtime.
"They worked their way into (the starting lineup) early in the preseason," Smith said of the two freshmen. "I did not know they were going to be starters (before the season), but they earned it."
Howard and Calhoun will be centerpieces next season as North breaks in a completely new set of contributors. Among the other varsity underclassmen who played big minutes this season, 6-foot-6 junior Jordan Brown also will be back.
They will be joined by promising young talent as North's junior varsity team won the region title and its ninth-grade team finished as region runner-up.
They also will have high expectations after the 2011-12 set the bar high.
"This year's team kind of renewed the spirit around here for successful basketball," Smith said.