BUFORD — After an emotional, post-game speech, head coach Jesse McMillan took a long pause before discussing Saturday’s first Class AAAAAAA boys basketball semifinal.

His Norcross boys took McEachern, the nation’s top-ranked team, to the brink in front of an overflowing Buford City Arena, eventually running out of steam in overtime for a 66-62 loss. The Blue Devils led after each of the first three quarters, went into overtime thanks to a clutch 3-pointer from Caleb Murphy and nearly pulled off a shocker on the shoulders of senior guard Kyle Sturdivant.

But they failed to score in the extra period until 39 seconds were left, and McEachern (31-0) won without making a field goal in OT, instead going 9-for-12 at the line as Norcross was forced to foul in the closing moments. The Blue Devils (22-9) also played nearly two minutes at the end of OT without five-star junior Brandon Boston, who fouled out.

“We executed our game plan on both ends,” said McMillan, whose team was state runner-up the previous two seasons. “For the game to go to overtime and need extra minutes to decide it, and ultimately be decided at the free-throw line, you can’t ask for anything else other than to win the game. The guys played hard. I think that’s one of the best games McEachern has had and probably had to play. We don’t go into these games knowing what to say after we lose. We expected to be playing next week.”

Instead, McEachern advances to next Saturday’s championship game in Macon. The Indians avenged a 75-55 loss to Norcross in last year’s quarterfinals, moving on to face the Meadowcreek-Tift County winner.

“It was just a great basketball game for high school,” McEachern head coach Mike Thompson said. “I read somewhere where our class is one of the top classes in the country, and I wouldn’t argue with that. Those are two of the better teams in the country playing right there. I have so much respect for Jesse. Jesse’s kind of set the bar for high school basketball in the state of Georgia. He does such a great job. His kids are always prepared and play hard.

“For us to beat them in that situation, especially after last year them coming in and kicking our butt, it’s big for our program.”

It was a one-possession game most of the evening, and Norcross led most of the first three quarters. It had a six-point edge early in the third quarter before McEachern charged back and took a lead late in the third. The Blue Devils took a 40-39 lead back at the end of the quarter when Sturdivant knocked down a pair of free throws after Thompson got a technical for arguing a call.

Sturdivant was huge all evening, particularly in the second half. The Southern California recruit had 21 of his 23 points in the second half, and also dished out a game-high seven assists.

“Speaking to all the seniors, but talking to (Sturdivant) specifically, the game of basketball in the state of Georgia has not been played at any higher level than it is right now,” McMillan said. “The level of athletes. The level of teams. The caliber of coaching. He’s given four years to this program and played at the highest level. And he’s been successful every single year. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a state championship to show for it. But what he’s accomplished has been incredible. And I thought he played one of his best games tonight as a senior against all odds. Offense, defense, he kept us in the ball game. We would not have had any chance without him.”

Boston, one of the nation’s top juniors, had 11 points and 15 rebounds, but he was limited to two points and three rebounds in the second half and first bit of OT before fouling out.

When he left, it freed up McEachern’s defense to focus on other Blue Devils.

“(Boston’s) seen a lot of different defenses and schemes the past month,” McMillan said. “It’s hard for a young player to adjust to a different look every single night. It’s hard for us coaches to prepare him because we don’t quite know what each night is going to bring. He’s shouldered a tremendous amount of scoring load for us this year. For him to not be on the floor, the last couple of minutes, whether he’s making shots or not, when he goes off the floor it allowed them to key on other guys.”

Norcross got to the extra period on a huge shot by Murphy. After Auburn signee Isaac Okoro gave McEachern a 57-54 lead with 33.9 seconds left in regulation, the Blue Devils struggled to find an open look.

Murphy buried the 3-pointer to tie the score, then McEachern five-star junior Sharife Cooper air-balled a long 3-pointer as time expired. Cooper, limited to four first-half points, stepped up in the second half and finished with 26 points. Okoro backed him up with 18 points and 12 rebounds.

“What I liked in the second half, period, Sharife and Okoro started playing a lot better and a lot more aggressive,” Thompson said. “I felt like in the first half Norcross took their aggressiveness away. We were settling for shots that were easy to get. I thought in the second half they took a little more punishment, dug hard and we took better shots.”

McEachern also got to the line, making 18 of 22 free throws in the fourth quarter and OT. Jared Jones, who also fouled out in OT, gave the Indians nine points and eight rebounds. His trio of 3-pointers in the first half kept the Blue Devils from opening up a bigger lead.

Norcross’ Issa Muhammad (nine points, eight rebounds), Murphy (nine points) and Daniel Ramsey (seven points) also chipped in offensively for a team that struggled early in the season but finished 2018-19 playing its best.

“From where we were at the beginning of the season, to go from where we were in the first game of the season vs. Wheeler to playing an A-plus game really here in the last game of the season, I’m really proud of them,” McMillan said. “I think ultimately this team will go down as one of the best in our history because of where they started and where they finished.”

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Sports editor for the Gwinnett Daily Post. A Gwinnett native documenting Gwinnett County sports with the GDP since 1997.