North Gwinnett’s Kamaran Calhoun (22) jumps to the basket against Norcross’ Thomas Cameron (33) during the first half of Wednesday’s Region 7-AAAAAA Championship game at Collins Hill. (Photo: Kyle Hess)
SUWANEE — Momentum swings are a normal part of any high school basketball game, but they are seldom as dramatic as they were in the Region 7-AAAAAA tournament championship game between North Gwinnett and Norcross.
Trailing by as many as 15 points late in the first half and by nine at halftime, the Bulldogs completely turned things around in the second.
T.J. Howard scoring 10 of his game-high 16 points in the final 16 minutes to help North surge past Norcross 59-48, giving the Bulldogs their first region title since joining the state’s highest classification in 2000.
“The guys really came to play in the second half,” said North coach Zachary Smith, whose Bulldogs (24-3) will host Region 5-AAAAAA’s No. 4 seed Etowah on Saturday. “We talked about (how) we’ve got to stick to what we do. We believe in what we do. We believe it works. In the first half, the shots weren’t falling, and we kind of hung our heads a little bit. … I just told them they had to control what they could control.”
Just how ice cold was North in the first half? The Bulldogs shot 9 of 30 from the floor for a frigid 30 percent.
Combined with a big early Norcross (21-6) rebounding advantage, the Blue Devils cashed in the first half.
Khalen Pinkett scored four points in a run of nine straight points that pushed Norcross to a double-digit lead at 20-6 following Pinkett’s driving layup down the lane with 1:09 left in the first quarter.
The lead stayed in double digits most of the first half and reached as much as 31-16 after Chris Herndon capped an 8-2 run with his drive down the lane with 1:50 left.
But North began to heat up late in the half, especially Ahmad Caver.
The 6-foot senior drained a pair of three pointers, plus two free throws, in the final 1:19 of the half for eight of his 10 points on the night, which keyed an 8-2 run that pulled the deficit back to within single digits at 33-24 by intermission.
More importantly, it gave the Bulldogs a spark of confidence, and combined with Smith’s urging to stick to the game plan, it made for a much different mood around the team.
“Coach just told us to keep on shooting and they’re going to fall,” Howard said. “We started out 9-for-30, but we only took about four bad shots. We just had to keep believing they were going to fall.
“(Caver’s shots) kind of changed the momentum of the game. After seeing him knock two (shots) down, we started getting our confidence back. … You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
The Bulldogs didn’t quite hit 100 percent of its shots in the second half, but they started connecting with much more regularity, while also stepping up their defensive pressure, from the start of the third quarter.
Owen Lewis hit a layup in transition 37 seconds into the period, which was halfway answered by 1 of 2 free throws from Lorenzo Carter, which left Norcross still leading 34-26 with 6:59 left.
But that free throw was the last point the Blue Devils would score for the next 5:58.
In that time, Malik Carter hit a pair of buckets off offensive rebounds, while Lewis and Howard added a 3-pointer each and Caver and Kam Calhoun also added a 2-point bucket apiece.
When Calhoun finished off the 16-1 run, North had suddenly vaulted into a 40-34 lead with 1:17 left in the period.
William Gibbons briefly answered with a 3-pointer from the left wing that pulled Norcross back to within 40-37 with 1:01 left, but North’s hot shooting streak continued by a reserve who played less than two minutes the entire evening.
Junior Jack Stucke made the most of his brief appearance, drilling a pair of shots from beyond the arc in the final 44 seconds of the quarter to push North’s lead to a stunning 46-38 heading into the fourth quarter.
And after Andre Chatfield briefly brought Norcross back to within 46-41 with a 3-pointer 1:02 into the final frame, the Bulldogs seized control for good.
Howard and Malik Carter combined for nine straight points over the next 2:53 to ballooned the North lead to double digits at 55-41, and the Blue Devils never recovered.
“I think it came down to a couple of plays at the beginning (of the second half) where some misfires didn’t go our way,” said Norcross coach Jesse McMillan, whose team plays host to Milton in a first-round state tournament game Saturday. “That’s what we talked about (after the game) — our ability to handle adversity when things started not bouncing our way. We didn’t do a very good job of that, myself included.”
Joining Howard and Caver in double-figure scoring for North were Malik Carter, who finished with a double-double by scoring 10 points and pulling down 12 rebounds, along with blocking four shots, and Calhoun, who added 10 points and seven boards.
Chatfield led Norcross with 13 points and five rebounds, while Ricky Madison added 11 points and five boards.
Peachtree Ridge 46
Zaynah Robinson scored two of his game-high 18 points with just over two minutes to play to give the Wildcats (16-12) the lead for good, and they held off a last-second shot to secure the region’s No. 3 seed with the win over the Lions.
Eric Hamilton added 14 points for Duluth, which will travel to Walton for a first-round game in the Class AAAAAA state playoff Saturday, while Anthony Showell also reached double figures with 10 points.
Sophomore Romello White scored 16 points to lead Peachtree Ridge (12-16), which opens up the first round of state at Wheeler on Saturday, while Amir Warnock finished with nine.