Photo by: Brendan Sullivan Norcross' William Gibbons (1), Devin Huffman (4), Nnamdi Van Dulm (21) and Thomas Cameron (33) celebrate in the final minute of action against Hillgrove during the Class AAAAAA state championship boys basketball game in Macon Saturday. Norcross defeated Hillgrove 60-48.
MACON -- Nobody had to tell Norcross' boys basketball team that defense wins championships. Coach Jesse McMillan has emphasized that point to his Blue Devils from Day 1 of preseason practice.
And with several team-oriented numerical goals as a guide, it was defense that played the key role in Norcross' 60-48 win over Hillgrove in Saturday night's Class AAAAAA state championship game at the Macon Centreplex.
The two most telling of those numbers were 60 and 15.
The first represents a point total that has proven to be a barometer of the team's success, with the Blue Devils (27-6) now 26-1 when holding opponents under 60.
"From the beginning of the season, our coaches told us we had to keep (opponent) under a certain amount of points," said junior point guard Khalen Pinkett, who played lockdown defense, including a steal, to go along with 11 points, four rebounds and three assists on the night. "Basically, we took that to heart. We told them we want to dominate on defense, and our defense sets it up for our offense."
The Blue Devils not only held Hillgrove (28-5) under the magic 60 mark, they also held the Hawks' leading scorer, Kyle Castlin, to just eight points, 13 below his season average.
And it is the second point Pinkett emphasized goes right to the heart of the second number mentioned.
Norcross has made it a goal to try to force opponents into 15 turnovers each game, and it coerced Hillgrove (28-5) into 16 of them, which turned into 19 Blue Devils points.
Still, there was one set of defensive numbers that Norcross was forced to make adjustment on in Saturday's title game.
While the Blue Devils managed to hold Hillgrove to just 15 of 40 shooting (37.5 percent) overall, the Hawks were able to lead much of the first three quarters, and stay close in the fourth, thanks to hot shooting from 3-point range.
With B.J. Brown (4 of 6 from 3-point range on his way to 12 points) and Keith Ray (2-of-4 on 3s, 13 points for the game) leading the way, Hillgrove hit 8 of its first 11 shots from behind the arc -- a blistering 72.7 percent clip.
"We knew they were going make some shots," Norcross coach Jesse McMillan said of Hillgrove's hot shooting. "Nobody makes the state championship without being able to score. We felt like we had a plan defensively, and we stuck to it for the most part.
"At the end of the game, we were just able to contest those shots and rebound. That's what we were hoping to do the whole game."
But it wasn't until the last three and half minutes -- after Brown made a 3-pointer to cut Norcross' lead to 47-45 with 4:56 remaining -- that the Blue Devils were able to better contest those shots.
McMillan began to send big men like 6-foot-6 bookends Lorenzo Carter and Ricky Madison out to harass Hillgrove's perimeter shooters.
The tactic worked, as the Hawks missed their final three 3-point attempts over the final 3:36, and had to pass up other opportunities thanks to pressure from the big men, plus guards like Pinkett and Brandon Goodwin.
"We knew we had to come out and play defense against a great shooting team like Hillgrove," said Carter, who finished with three points, three rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. "We had to (contest the 3s). If we didn't, they would've kept knocking them down."