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Norcross builds a big lead and then survives Tift County's press — barely

The battle of the Blue Devils looked like a laugher early, but the squad from South Georgia clawed its way back before falling 60-57.

Story and video by David Friedlander | Photo by Ed Turlington

NORCROSS, Ga. — A Norcross girls basketball team that has lived by the full-court press in recent weeks nearly died by it in its second-round Class 7A state tournament game against Tift County.

But Norcross overcame that pressure defense and Tift's hot long-range shooting to survive for a 60-57 victory in the battle of the Blue Devils on Saturday and advance to the state quarterfinals for the 10th time in the last 13 years.

Norcross (23-5) had used the press to its advantage to make late surges that led to victories over Archer in the Region 7-Class 7A tournament championship game and Roswell in the first round of the state tournament.

But Tift (16-9) nearly turned the tables Saturday on Norcross, which scored the first 16 points of the game, took a 15-point lead after the first quarter and led by as many as 19 midway through the third quarter.

“We got a little tight down the stretch,” Norcross coach Ashley Clanton said. “I don't know if it was a little bit of anxiety, not understanding where to be (on the court to attack the press) or what it was. But at the same time, Tift hit 3s like it was nothing. So when you're chasing and you're trying to get to these kids, and they're hitting deep 3s, too … that extended us on the defensive end and was a big reason why they made a comeback like that. … (But the players) hung on, and they came through in the clutch.”

The Blue Devils from South Georgia hit nine shots from behind the arc, including four from Tamyra Carter and two from Shakiria Chaney, who each finished with 20 points.

Norcross forward Zaria Hurston posted a game-high 27 points, including the 1,000th of her career, nine rebounds, and her most important two points came on a pair of free throws with 20.4 seconds left.

It didn't look like those heroics would be necessary after Norcross survived one Tift comeback that saw the early 16-0 lead cut to as little as five late in the first half before being built back up to 29-22 by intermission.

But after Chaney scored to open the second half to pull Tift County back to within 29-24, Hurston and sophomore Jania Akins — who finished with 17 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals — kick-started the host Blue Devils with baskets 15 seconds apart.

LaNiya Kenon hit a 3, reserve Cadence Peterson added a transition layup and Kayla Lindsey hit two free throws to cap a run of 14 straight points to give Norcross its largest lead of the game at 43-24 with 3:41 left in the third quarter.

The lead was still 17, at 50-33 heading into the fourth quarter, when Tift County once again began to create havoc with its press.

When Tift wasn't converting turnovers into easy baskets on layups, such as Carter's steal and a layup with 4:52 remaining to cap a 14-2 run that cut the Norcross lead to 52-47, it was sinking 3-pointers.

The South Georgia Blue Devils hit four shots from behind the arc in the fourth quarter, the last by Carter with 37.5 seconds remaining to cap another 10-3 run that cut the Norcross lead to 58-57.

“When they started hitting those 3s, they started going on a run, and I think that started (wearing on) our confidence,” Hurston said. “When teams hits 3s, sometimes your confidence can get shot. But I'm proud of (the team) for keeping our heads in it and being able to take the pressure and use it.”

The 6-foot senior and recently crowned Region 7-Class 7A Player of the Year set a good example at a crucial juncture in the final minute.

After hitting 1 of 2 free throws just before Carter's last 3, Akins went to the line again for a 1-and-1 opportunity with 22.9 seconds left, but missed the front end.

Hurston outfought a Tift defender for an offensive rebound and drew a foul on an attempted stick-back.

Her first free throw hit all four sides of the rim before falling through the net.

“That took a little bit (of nerves) off,” Hurston said. “But I knew I had to make that second (free throw) because it's much harder to get a 3 than a layup. And just to calm myself down mentally, I was just thinking about … practice every day, and I just took myself back there.”

The second shot went down much easier to push the Norcross lead to 60-57 with 20.4 seconds left, but Hurston knew she and her teammates still had work to do.

As tough a time as the host Blue Devils had in defending the 3-point line throughout the game, they pressured Tift on its final trip down the court, forcing Carter to heave up a 30-footer that barely grazed the front rim to end the game.

As much trouble as Norcross had with the Tift press, Clanton is convinced it might serve her team well in preparation for what should be an intense trip across Gwinnett County to Brookwood in the quarterfinals this week.

“The depth of (Tift County's) pressure, I think it kind of messed with us a little bit as far as our spacing and understanding where we should be on the floor,” Clanton said. “But it's a good thing because Brookwood kind of plays a similar way, so we'll be able to kind of tweak it and make sure we're ready to go."

For Hurston and many of the Norcross players, it will be a chance to renew acquaintances with Brookwood players who they played against on the AAU circuit or as former rivals when the two teams were both in Region 7-Class 7A.

“This game actually means way more than people know because we know everybody on that team,” Hurston said. “We know what we're going against. … We just need to stay mentally prepared for that.”