NORCROSS — The Berkmar boys basketball players could be forgiven if they began having flashback of unhappy memories of their last trip to Norcross’ House of Blue about a month ago during their Region 7-AAAAAAA tournament championship game against the host Blue Devils.
Coach Greg Phillips and his staff weren’t about to let his players forget how they let a 17-point lead slip away in a 54-52 loss back on Jan. 10.
“We reminded them about the things we worked on to improve and prepare for that,” Phillips said. “I think that’s what helped us … not turn the ball over and defend there at the end the right way. So we reminded them of that.”
The Patriots seem to have learned their lesson after withstanding Norcross’ furious comeback attempt in the fourth quarter Friday to finally lock down a 62-58 victory, Phillips' 200th as a head coach.
Cam Blount led four players in double figures as Berkmar (16-9) secure its first region championship since winning in Region 8-AAAAAA title back in 2014, and earn a matchup with West Forsyth in the first round of the Class AAAAAAA state tournament nest week.
It looked like to might come fairly easy after the Patriots used a 24-8 surge in the second quarter to turn a 16-12 deficit into a 36-24 lead at the half.
Berkmar then continued the momentum to start the second half, answering Quincy Ademokoya’s 3-pointer 48 seconds into the third quarter with 11 straight points, capped by a pair of Jalen Deloach free throws, to take its biggest lead of the game at 47-29 at the 3:34 mark before Norcross (24-3) slowly began to chip away.
Kevon Eskridge grabbed an offensive rebounds and hit a jumper in the lane with 3:27 left, which ignited an 11-3 run over the remainder of the quarter, keyed by five straight points form J.T. Thor, to bring the Blue Devils back to within 10 at 48-38 heading into the final frame.
With the deficit at 52-40 following Jermahri Hill’s driving layup with 5:56 remaining, Norcross began its final charge on next possession when Jaden Harris converted a pair of free throws at the 5:37 mark.
Thor, who was crowned the region’s Player of the Year before the game, then hit from the left elbow and hit 1 of 2 free throws on the next two possessions, and the Blue Devils were suddenly on a roll.
And when Josh Taylor hit 1 of 2 from the line, his first point since a run of eight first-quarter points, the Berkmar lead was cut to just 56-50, it’s lowest since the 1:50 mark of the second quarter, with 1:48 left.
But the Patriots were able to come up with enough defensive stops and hit just enough free throws — 6 of 8 over the final 49.6 seconds, including two straight each from Malique Ewin and Elijah Wood — to allow the clock to finally run out, and send them into celebration.
Deloach joined Blount in double figures with 13 points, to go with 15 rebounds, while Ewin posted a double-double of 12 points and a game-high 17 rebounds, Hill finished with 11 points and Julius Reynolds dished out game-high six assists.
Harris led the way for Norcross with 15 points, while Thor shook off a difficult first half marred by foul trouble to finish with 13 points, five boards and three blocked shots, Eskridge and Ademokoya each added 10 points and Taylor contributed nine points, 10 rebounds and two blocks.
But it wasn’t enough, and Norcross coach Jesse McMillan knows the Blue Devils will need to put forth a better effort in the state tournament, which they will begin with a home game against Lambert in the first round.
“The second quarter (Berkmar) outscored us 24-8,” McMillan said. “They dominated us physically from the moment the game started to the very end. I don’t know how many offensive rebounds they had, but it just felt like they dominated on both ends. And that was something we definitely were aware of.
“Berkmar is a really, really good team. They’re jelling at the right time. But we also mentioned that we were, in all honesty, very lucky to win the game the second time we played them (on Jan. 10). They had all the ammunition to come out here and play the way they did (Friday night). I’m just disappointed in how they overpowered us physically.”