NORCROSS — For the better part of two and a half quarters of their first-round Class AAAAAAA state boys basketball tournament game, Lambert had No. 5 state-ranked Norcross in serious trouble.
The scrappy Longhorns had a patient, deliberate pace to the game they wanted, and had the Blue Devils frustrated before they took matters into their own hands midway through the third quarter.
Utilizing a rarely-used full-court press, Norcross finally kick-started the game’s tempo, and after scoring just 30 points in the first three quarters, the Blue Devils put up 35 in the final frame to finally run away with a 65-49 victory Thursday at the House of Blue.
J.T. Thor finished with 21 points, 15 of which came in the second half, pulled down nine rebounds and three blocked shots, to finally help Norcross punch its ticket other second round, where either a home game against HIllgrove or a road game at Camden County awaits next week.
But Lambert (18-10) made the Blue Devils (25-3) early every bit of that win by setting the pace from the opening tip.
“That’s not (normally) how they (Lambert) play,” Norcross coach Jesse McMillan said. “That’s not how they played other teams, so we tried to prepare for four or five different game plans — them playing fast or slowing it down. They’re a tough matchup with the way the space the floor, and they’ve got shooters all over the floor. … We said at halftime, ‘If we can’t get a lead, we’re not going to be able to change their style of play.”
The Blue Devils actually had a 12-11 lead after one quarter, but managed just four points in the second.
Meanwhile, Lambert was doing a masterful job of moving the ball around on the offensive end of the court and patiently awaiting its time to strike.
And the Longhorns did, usually finding either Colin Granger inside or Will Baker outside, which helped them take the lead on Granger’s baseline drive and reverse layup 15 seconds into the period, and build it up to 23-16 heading into halftime.
The Lambert lead was still six at 29-23 following Granger’s dunk off a nifty feed from Luke Champion with 3:01 left in the third quarter before McMillan employed a tactic Norcross hasn’t used much this season.
“We talked at halftime about picking up the (defensive) pressure (full-court) and trying to maintain it,” McMillan said. “And after the first (few) minutes of the second half, we did. We usually don’t play that way. The habit is to run back on defense, so we had to kind of get them in the right mindset in the first couple of minutes, … and then we were able to turn the tempo up.”
Indeed, the gambit paid off, and it was Thor who helped the Blue Devils lay the hammer down after forcing the Longhorns into missed shots.
The 6-foot-10 senior drove the lane for a layup on two consecutive possessions, the second one ending up as a three-point play following a free throw, and threw down a thunderous dunk off a rebound of his own miss that keyed a 9-1 run over the final 2:44 of the third quarter to vault Norcross into a 32-30 lead heading into the final frame.
“At first, it was kind of rough,” Thor said. “They were trying to hold the ball, but decided to … try to pressure them and started to get into our game. The second half, we turned it up. I picked it up the most because we’re all so athletic. So I felt like that would be a big difference going forward.”
A driving layup by Jackson Greene pulled Lambert back even at 32-all just 30 seconds into the fourth quarter.
But Will Campbell knocked down a 3-pointer form the left win on Norcross’ next trip down the court, Thor added a pair of free throws and a another stickback slam and Quincy Ademokoya chapped in a transition layup and two more free throws to help the Blue Devils ballon the lead to 44-32 with 4:27 remaining.
A Granger free throw and 3 pointer from Baker pulled Lambert back to within eight at 44-36 with 3:26 left, but Kevon Eskridge answered with a 3-pointer of his own and Thor and Ademokoya added a basket apiece in transition to put the lead back into double digits for good, with Norcross putting the game away at the line by hitting 10 of 12 free throws in the final 1:58.
It was a frustrating end for a night that started so promising for coach Scott Bracco’s Longhorns.
“I was super proud of our guys,” said Bracco, a former head coach at South Gwinnett. “We had a tremendous game plan (Thursday) night. We executed the game plan to a T for three quarters. I think we rushed a few shots (late in the third quarter and into the fourth quarter), and we got away from our game plan.”
In addition to Thor’s big night, Norcross also got 13 points form Ademokoya, and 11 points off the bench from Campbell, who hit 8 of 10 free throws on the night.
Eskridge and Josh Taylor also chipped in eight points piece, with Taylor also pulling down a team-high 11 rebounds.
Granger posted a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Baker finished with 14 points, 12 of which came on four 3-pointers.