NORCROSS — If there’s one thing first-year Norcross girls basketball coach Ashley Clanton understands is that style points really don’t count for much during the regular season, and they don’t count for anything in the postseason.
So as ugly as her team’s first-round Class AAAAAAA game against West Forsyth looked most of the evening, the result was as pretty as it needed to be.
The Blue Devils held the visiting Wolverines scoreless for a nearly 10 1/2-minute stretch, including the entire third quarter, and got just enough offense to pull away for a 37-31 victory Thursday night at the House of Blue.
Yamani Paul finished with a game-high 13 points, while another veteran, Dani Dias, added a clutch eight points and eight rebounds off the bench.
But make no mistake, it was defense, keyed by 12 forced turnovers and a 43-25 rebounding advantage, that allowed Norcross (19-9) to advance to the second round, where it awaits the winner of Friday’s game between Camden County and North Paulding in Kingsland.
“I think the biggest thing defensively is the kids, they know we can rely on that,” Clanton said. “If we’re struggling on the offensive end, as long as we keep (the other team) from scoring, we’re in the game and we can make a play at the end.”
Early on, the Blue Devils were having trouble keeping up with West Forsyth’s (20-8) quick ball movement, which allowed good looks from perimeter shooters against a Norcross zone.
Cayla Cowart, Maggie Quincy and Kalie Thrower each knocked down a 3-pointer in the first quarterr that allowed the visiting Wolverines to take an 11-7 lead after one quarter,.
The lead reached as much as 13-7 early after a pair of Quincy free throws 40 seconds into the second quarter before West Forsyth took a 20-16 lead into intermission.
But coming out of the locker room, the Blue Devils knew that if they were going to get back into the game, it was going to have to start on the defensive end of the court.
“The last couple of practices (this week), especially (prepping for) this team, we pushed the help side (defesnse),” said Paul, who battled foul trouble much of the game. “The help side was always there, and that’s what (eventually) helped us put the game away.”’
Covering the help side definitely was a factor as the third quarter commenced, with Norcross contesting more of West Forsyth’s shots from the wings, while still cutting off the drive down the lane.
The result was a dry spell in which the Wolverines posted their last points of the first half with 36 seconds left, and went the next 10:41 of game time without scoring.
“I think at halftime, you go in (to the locker room) down four, and our kids kind of looked like, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening?’” Clanton said. “You’ve got to challenge them and say, ‘You know what? We’re in the game. If we can just come out and defend like we know how to defend, we’re going to pick up some baskets somewhere.’ So we came out with a little more tenacity and a competitive will to win., and not being concerned about being down a couple of buckets.”
The Blue Devils didn’t have much better luck with the offense, netting just seven points in the third quarter, including three from Paul and two each from Kayla Lindsey and Dias.
But by the time West Forsyth finally saw the ball go through the hoop again 2:05 into the fourth quarter on a Calie Thrower 3-pointer, the Blue Devils still had a 25-23 lead.
And while it took a while, Norcross was finally able to build some breathing room, with the Blue Devils hitting 7 of 8 free-throw attempts in the final 4:59 of the game, including a perfect 4-for-4 from Mariah Baltierra.
Meanwhile, Dias converted a pair of layups as West Forsyth extended its defense trying to create turnovers in the final minutes that allowed the Blue Devils to ice the game.
In addition to Paul’s scoring and Dias’ clutch play down the stretch, Norcross also got seven points and four rebounds from Baltierra, five points, seven boards and three steals from Lindsey and a game-high nine rebounds from Jada Warren.
Calie Thrower finished with 12 points to lead West Forsyth, while Quincy added nine points.