Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan For the first time since 2001 the GHSA returns to the McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. Since the Arena at Gwinnett Center is not available at this time it has cause the tournament to be played at the McCamish Pavilion. Norcross and Langston Hughes during State AAAAAA high school girls basketball semifinals at the McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta Saturday. Norcross defeated Langston Hughes 64-16.
ATLANTA -- McCamish Pavilion was slow to fill, the crowd at the start of the opening girls Class AAAAAA semifinal game between Norcross and Langston Hughes a little disappointing.
The empty seats soon filled, though.
The lower level of Georgia Tech's new arena -- holding nearly 7,000 -- was almost filled by the start of the boys opener between Cobb County schools Wheeler and Hillgrove.
That didn't drastically change later, either, especially holding true for the fourth and final game between the Norcross and North Cobb boys.
The return of state high school tournament basketball to the Tech campus in Atlanta was for all appearances a success.
"I thought it was great," Norcross girls coach Angie Hembree said.
The Gwinnett Arena is missed, especially by fans living northeast of Atlanta. But semifinal games at McCamish Pavilion offered an opportunity to play in a brand-new college arena.
"The kids were really excited," Hembree said.
North Gwinnett's Stephanie Amichia was so keyed up at first that she air-balled her first warm-up layup before facing North Cobb.
"I took a while to get settled down," she said.
To get to play on the campus where her father, James, shined was an added treat for North Gwinnett's Alyssa Munlyn.
"It was exciting to come in here and see his name on the wall," she said.
Some of the players in Saturday's games will be back as visiting collegians, including North Carolina signee Diamond DeShields of Norcross and Maryland signee Lexie Brown of North Gwinnett.
Hembree, who has won four state titles and been a college assistant, seemed as excited as any of her Norcross players.
"I hadn't seen it before," she said. "It's really a great place."
Cobb fans seemed to outnumber those from Gwinnett, with the largest student contingent from Hillgrove. They had to be held back from storming the court after the Hawks survived a last-second Wheeler shot for a 56-54 upset.
Norcross and North Cobb each had boys and girls teams in action, with North Cobb having the advantage of playing in back-to-back games.
The Norcross girls played first and the boys last. But Norcross senior Miller Smith, wearing a blue body suit, was at the front of the Blue Devils cheering section for both.
"This isn't as convenient as going to the Gwinnett Arena, but it's still not far," he said. "We didn't have more students here for the girls because they didn't think it would be a close game."
Fellow Norcross senior Chris Willis' only concern about playing at Georgia Tech was parking. "It's not as easy as at the Gwinnett Arena," he said.
Final Four games moved from Georgia Tech to Gwinnett in 2002, but scheduling conflicts forced them out of the Arena this year and they aren't likely to return in the near future.
All of the state championship games will be held next week in Macon. It is the first time that the semifinals and finals haven't been held in the same week.
"I think this is the best we could possibly come up with for this year," said Ralph Swearngin, executive director of the Georgia High School Association. "We'll review things and see what went well and what didn't. This is all new. If we need to tweak things, we will."
North Gwinnett and Norcross will have to go a long way next Saturday to play for the girls title in Macon.
"It would be nice to have the game right back here," North Gwinnett coach Bryan Sellers said.