NORCROSS — Slowly, but surely, Norcross boys basketball coach Jesse McMillan is starting to see his young squad grow up.
Another growth milestone came in Tuesday night's Region 7-AAAAAAA showdown with No. 5 state-ranked Berkmar, in which the Blue Devils came up with perhaps their best effort of the year in a 63-57 win at the House of Blue.
Sure, seniors like Jaden Harris (15 points, 2 steals) and Kok Yat (13 points, 5 rebounds) were big keys to Norcross (12-5, 6-0) in running their winning streak to five straight games since returning from the holiday break.
But it was key contributions down the stretch from the likes of sophomore London Johnson (10 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists), junior Jerry Deng (11 points, 4 rebounds) and freshman Jakhi Howard that played just as big a role as the Blue Devils claimed sole possession of first place in the region.
“We've been playing better after Christmas, and we knew this was a big measuring stick for us,” McMillan said. “We talked about it the last couple of days, about just coming out and being aggressive from the start and maintaining when Berkmar hard their run. And we had guys stepping up.
“They've played hard the entire year. They're a competitive group, … but what has taken a while to learn is just the little things that you have to do to win a ball game – the 50-50 balls, making your free throws, changing defense, things like that. That's stuff we didn't do in our losses, but (Tuesday) night, everybody was locked in.”
Norcross was very aggressive from the start, with Howard converting a layup just eight seconds after the opening tip to lead a run that featured a pair of 3-pointers from Yat and a conventional three-point play from Harris to build a 12-3 lead with 2:03 left in the first quarter.
It was a hole Berkmar (13-5, 6-1) would spend the rest of the night trying to climb out of.
“(Norcross) played harder than us — played harder, coached harder,” Berkmar coach Greg Phillips said. “We didn't play championship level basketball (Tuesday) night. Preparation will determine how well we play in games. That's what we've got to do as coaches. We've got to do a better job of getting us prepared, and the players need to do a better job of preparing themselves.”
Berkmar did slowly start to creep back into the game throughout the evening.
Trailing 19-12 by the end of the first quarter and by as many as 11 points at 38-27 after a Johnson layup after an inbound pass from the baseline capped a 10-4 run with 43 seconds left in the first half, the Patriots to make a late charge in the final minute.
A turnaround jumper by Dara Olonade, a steal and a three-point play by Jalen Harris cut the deficit to 38-32 by intermission.
Norcross put Berkmar into an even deeper hole to start the second half by charging out of the locker room behind Jaden Harris.
The 6-foot-3 senior scored all 11 points — nine in transition — in an 11-2 run over the the opening 3:07 of the third quarter that gave the Blue Devils their largest lead of the game at 49-35.
The Patriots responded by slowing chipping away over the remainder of the third quarter, as Jameel Rideout scored five points and Ja'Ron Ford added a clutch 3-pointer as part of a 10-2 run that cut the deficit in half to just 51-44 by the end of the quarter.
After Norcross briefly built the lead back to nine, Berkmar regained momentum.
Olonade hit four free throws, Malique Ewin, who finished with a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, knocking down one of his two 3-pointers on the night and Ford and Jermahri Hill scoring in transition to key and 11-6 run that pulled the Patriots to within 57-55 after Hill's layup with 37.9 seconds left.
A missed free throw on the front end of a 1-and-1 on the other end gave Berkmar a chance to tie or take the lead.
But when Rideout made a move down the lane, Johnson cut him off and was able to gain position quick enough to draw the whistle and a charging foul to force a turnover with 32 seconds left.
After a quick foul, Deng drained a pair of free throws to push the Norcross lead to 59-55 with 29.4 seconds left.
A missed Berkmar 3-pointer wound up in the hands of Yat, who drew a quick foul and followed up Deng's two made free throws with two of his own to make the Blue Devils' lead 61-55 with 21.8 seconds left. Norcross finished the night 10 of 11 from the line.
Howard then followed up with the head's up play of the night by stealing the inbound and connecting on the layup to put the final nail in Berkmar's coffin. The freshman finished with six points, six points, four rebounds and three blocked shots.
Olonade joined Ewin with a solid night in the low block for Berkmar with 11 points and eight rebounds, while Hill added 14 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals and Rideout finished with nine points, four assists and two steals.