North Gwinnett’s Malik Carter (12) takes a jump shot over Norcross’ Lorenzo Carter (5) during boys basketball action in Norcross Tuesday. Norcross defeated North Gwinnett 59-48. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
NORCROSS — While Norcross didn’t necessarily plan on North Gwinnett playing short-handed in their Region 7-AAAAAA boys basketball game, it had a game plan that would prove effective in taking advantage, nonetheless.
The Blue Devils pressured the Bulldogs and made them work extra hard, and eventually pulled away in the second half for a 59-48 win Tuesday night at the House of Blue. Playing without injured star guard T.J. Howard, North (15-3, 10-1) got a strong night from other leaders like Ahmad Caver (game-high 21 points) and Kam Calhoun (11 points, 12 rebounds).
But Norcross (13-5, 8-2) used a deep bench, heavy pressure defense and balanced scoring to hand the Bulldogs their first region loss in a physical ball game.
“The biggest thing was we played with some energy, which we haven’t done a couple times this year,” Norcross coach Jesse McMillan said. “They were missing T.J., which is almost 20 points (per game) for them, but we were also without Ricky Madison. … Both teams were down a man.”
Caver and Calhoun helped keep North in the game in the first half, particularly after Norcross built an 11-4 lead after A.J. Farrar ended a run of seven straight points.
Caver hit a pair of 3-pointers over the final 1:51 of the first quarter, and then added a pair of free throws 39 seconds into the second and a pull-up jumper that ended a 12-4 run that vaulted North into a 16-15 lead with 5:59 left in the first half.
But after Calhoun hit 1 of 2 free throws — the last of his seven first-half points — that tied the game at 21-apiece with 4:04 left in the half, Norcross — and specifically William Gibbons — began to heat up from the perimeter.
The 6-foot-2 senior first banked in a 3-pointer from the right wing with 1:41 left in the half, and then added another trey from the left wing with 18 seconds left in the half to send the Blue Devils into intermission with a 29-23 lead.
The lead was five at 34-29 after a pair of Malik Carter free throws with 4:35 left in the third quarter when the Blue Devils began to make their move.
Lorenzo Carter went high in the air to nab Khalen Pinkett’s in-bound lob and slammed it down for a thunderous dunk that pushed the Norcross lead to 36-29 with 4:04 left in the quarter.
More importantly, it gave the Blue Devils a jolt of energy, which they used to finish period on a 6-1 run that stretched their lead to 40-30 heading into the fourth quarter.
And the late run set the tone for the final frame.
“We wanted to limit (North’s) penetration drives because they’re really good at spacing the floor and penetrating and kicking (the ball out),” McMillan said. “Then in the second half, we felt like their legs were going to start going, so we did some of the full-court press. We didn’t do it long, but we did it long enough to get a little 7-0 spurt maybe, and change the tempo of the game. And they starting missing some jumpers, which is maybe a sign of fatigue.”
If the Bulldogs weren’t feeling tired already, Norcross added to their growing fatigue by forcing them into the bulk of their 15 turnovers on the night, and then getting to the line.
Carter, Gibbons and A.J. Farrar each hit a pair of free throws, while Gibbons and A.J. Bush each added transition layups to spark a 10-2 run over the opening 2:16 of the fourth quarter that gave the Blue Devils their biggest lead at 50-34 and essentially put the game away.
Caver and Calhoun helped North briefly pull as close as nine points in the waning moments, but by that time, it was clear this would be Norcross’ night.
“Strength and physicality and athleticism, and they play 10 guys and send them at you hard,” North coach Zachary Smith said. “But we had our chances. We had plenty of chances. We’ve got to make plays in a big game, and they made the plays and we didn’t. That happens when you play a good team.”
Farrar led three players in double figures with 14 points and added team highs with eight rebounds and three steals, but the Blue Devils got plenty of contributions across the board.
Gibbons added 11 points, Bush scored 10 points, Lorenzo Carter chipped in nine points and six rebounds and Pinkett finished with eight points and game-high six assists.
Aside from Caver and Calhoun, Malik Carter contributed 10 points and six rebounds for North.
Norcross girls 54, North 50
Sierra Butler led a balanced effort with 11 points as the Blue Devils (13-3, 9-1) held off the Bulldogs (9-9, 5-6).
Norcross, which also got nine points from Bri Williams, hit just 2 of 12 free throws in the fourth quarter, but made just enough to hold on.
Stephanie Amichia had 16 points for North to lead all scorers, while Joshlyn Belcher had 15 points and Alyssa Munlyn chipped in 12 points.