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North, Norcross girls square off in anticipated title showdown

It's a matchup the players, coaches and communities at the respective Gwinnett high schools knew was possible, and hoped would happen all season long.

Tonight at approximately 7 p.m., those hopes and expectations come to fruition when county and Region 7-AAAAAA rivals Norcross and North Gwinnett square off for the Class AAAAAA girls basketball state championship at the Macon Centreplex.

It will be the fourth meeting this season between the Blue Devils (27-5) and Bulldogs (29-1) and the 10th in the last three seasons.

And given the resumes -- Norcross' Class AAAAA state titles in 2010 and 2011 and Final Four appearance last year and North's two straight Final Four appearances -- and star power -- recently-crowned Naismith Award winner Diamond DeShields and Shayla Cooper for the Blue Devils and Lexie Brown and Peyton Whitted for the Bulldogs -- plus the stakes, this one will be the most anticipated.

"It just adds to the rivalry," North coach Bryan Sellers said. "In talking with (Norcross coach) Angie (Hembree) and (Blue Devils assistant) Jay (Nebel), we were hoping we'd get to to play four times (this season). It says a lot about ... girls basketball in our region and how difficult it is just to get out of our region."

There are no secrets between the two teams after each claimed a double-digit win on its home court before North won the region title with a 58-53 win in the tournament finals three weeks ago.

But as Brown points out, those previous meetings don't figure to have much bearing on tonight's contest.

"Everything that happened before this game does not matter," said the Maryland-bound, 5-foot-10 senior, who comes into the game averaging 18.2 points, 6.9 assists, 4.8 steals and 4.4 rebounds per game. "The blowouts, the close games, the nail-biters -- all that goes out the window. Really, I think either one of us have a chance at winning that game."

Indeed, both teams have shown championship form since their last meeting, when the Bulldogs avenged their only loss of the season and inflicted the Blue Devils' only loss in nearly two months.

North has won its four previous state tournament games by an average of 23 points, while Norcross has been perhaps even more dominating, winning three games by an average of 43 points, plus a double-overtime win over previously unbeaten Parkview in the second round.

The Blue Devils definitely made a statement in their semifinal game against Langston Hughes, with DeShields scoring 15 first-quarter points to help the team to a double-digit lead before fans at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion were settled in their seats, en route to a 64-16 win.

But Hembree knows that as talented as the Bulldogs are, it will take her team's top effort to win tonight in Macon.

"When you've seen each other three times, you know what to expect," Hembree said. "It's just a matter of playing hard. It's going to come down to the basics.

"We've played really well in the region and state tournaments. Against Parkview, we hung in very well, and in our game at Tech (against Langston Hughes), we executed very well. We just have to play our best ball (against North tonight)."

One advantage Norcross would seem to have is a little bit of championship experience, with seniors DeShields, Cooper and Javonne Stanfield and juniors Bri Williams, Kolby Meeks, Deja Smith and Sierra Butler having been with the team during the Blue Devils' last title team two years ago.

However, playing against a team the Bulldogs so familiar with could help with any first-time nerves in a state championship setting.

And Sellers ultimately agrees with Hembree that effort and execution will be more of a factor than any of the intangibles.

"It doesn't matter who we're playing. As far as those nerves go, that's just part of it -- the butterflies that you get," Sellers said. "It does make it a little familiar playing a team we've played before, as far as what we can expect. It's going to be fun.

"We have to shoot the ball well. That was one of the biggest differences (in the 46-29 Norcross win Jan. 23) at their place. We did not shoot the ball well at all. Whoever comes out and is able to control the boards (will have the advantage). Lexie and Diamond are going to have a tremendous showdown. Shayla's been playing well for them of late and putting a lot of points the board. Those two girls, you can't really hope to stop them, but just kind of contain them."