NORCROSS – As they walked from the locker room back into the now sparsely-filled gymnasium at Norcross High School, the South Forsyth boys’ basketball team was met with a standing ovation from War Eagles fans waiting in the stands for a game, and a season, that exceeded expectations.
But for two second-half spurts in a 45-37 loss Wednesday, South almost completely neutralized Norcross’s dynamic athleticism with patient offense and disciplined defense to give the No. 3-ranked Blue Devils an unexpected scare in the first round of the Class AAAAAA tournament.
South never led but never trailed by more than 10 points and was within 37-32 with 55.2 seconds left after Tyler Elliott came off a screen and knocked down a long three-pointer from the left elbow. War Eagles head coach Scott Givens immediately called a timeout to set up the team’s defense, but Norcross went 6-for-6 from the free-throw line down the stretch.
Evan Cole led the War Eagles with 14 points to go along with eight rebounds. Elliott had seven points and six assists, while Joe Brandon and Austin Childress each made two three-pointers.
Norcross (26-3) advances to play No. 4-ranked Westlake in the second round. South ends its season at 14-15.
“I’m just proud of them,” Given said. “They followed the game plan and really did a great job.”
The War Eagles were supposed to be something of a playoff exhibition for Norcross. The Blue Devils had virtually every advantage: size, speed, athleticism and pedigree, with its five state titles since 2006, four NBA alum and having not missed the playoffs since 2000. It’d been eight years since South last made the state tournament, and it took an upset over third-seeded Centennial in the Region 6-AAAAAA tournament to end the drought.
South knew trying to keep up in a transition game with Norcross was a death march. The Blue Devils featured 6-foot-8 junior Rayshaun Hammonds and 6-foot-9 junior Lance Thomas, both top-20 prospects in Georgia according to one high school basketball recruiting website, and they were a handful at times for South. Hammonds had 16 points and eight rebounds, while Thomas added 13 points and six rebounds.
So the War Eagles reinvented itself for one night. The War Eagles committed to playing a half-court game, spacing out players on offense and whipping passes around the perimeter to find the perfect open shot. The deliberate pace made for a swift game: South trailed just 14-11 at halftime.
“It was a first,” Cole said of the game plan. “We just went out there, and [Givens] told us to be patient, work the clock, the lower the score the better. We just tried to keep it as low as possible, and if we got good looks we’d take them. We just tried to take great shots and get back on defense.”
Even when Norcross made its runs, South responded. The Blue Devils scored seven straight to start the second half and take their largest lead of the game at 21-11, but Brandon made two deep three-pointers and Elliott hit a long jumper to cut it to 22-19.
Norcross went up 36-27 in the fourth quarter on a cutting put-back layup by Dalvin White, but Cole made a short bouncing jumper off an inbounds pass and Elliott hit his three-pointer to cut the lead to five.
“We’re trying to put South Forsyth boys basketball on the map, and I think we’ve done that,” Given said. “But we’re also doing it for Forsyth County too. We want to take Forsyth County to another level. We want to get up there with the Gwinnett and Cobb counties.
“I’m just proud of them. They followed the game plan and really did a great job.”