Norcross’ girls basketball program is no stranger to national rankings, but the No. 7 slot it occupies this week in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 this week is nice compliment for a team just trying to re-establish itself as the best in the state.
Norcross’ state-championship teams in 2010, 2011 and 2013 featured high-profile recruits such as Diamond DeShields (Tennessee), Dearica Hamby (Wake Forest), Shayla Cooper (Ohio State) and Kaela Davis (South Carolina).
The current group – which is 14-1 and ranked No. 1 in Class AAAAAAA – is not unarmed by any stretch, but seniors Taylor Mason (Miami) and Vanessa Blagmon (South Florida) are the only Division I commits at the moment.
‘’They’re playing better than what they look like on paper because they’re playing so well together,’’ said Norcross coach Angie Hembree, who has guided six state-championship teams, including those at Collins Hill in 2001, 2002 and 2005. ‘’Because we’re not very tall, we have to be tenacious about defense and about the boards, and they’re getting it done. They just don’t want to lose. It matters to them.’’
Norcross doesn’t have a starter shorter than 5-foot-7 junior Tehya Lyons, but none taller than 6-foot sophomore Tionna Carter ‘’who is playing bigger than she is and hopefully she’ll keep that up,’’ Hembree said. Carter is the daughter of former WNBA player, South Carolina All-American and Meadowcreek star Jocelyn Penn.
‘’She’s an unbelievable athlete,’’ Hembree said of Carter. “Part of her thing is that she’s got that light build, not like her mom. She has a lot of touch around the basket. Her freshman year, she was intimidated. Now she’s much better and getting boards.’’
Devyn Wilson, a 5-10 junior, joins Mason and Blagmon, both 5-8, in the starting five.
Blagmon is coming off a particularly strong tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last month, when she scored 22 points against Wesleyan and 25 against nationally ranked Monacan, Va.
‘’Vanessa Blagman has always been underrated,’’ Hembree said. “She had a decent season last year, but this year she’s doing great.’’
Hembree said that Mason, who got some all-state recognition last season, and Blagmon complement each other.
‘’Taylor Mason has always been tough and so strong,’’ she said. “She can do a lot of things and play a lot of positions. She can post you up and hit the 3. Vanessa is more beat you off the dribble or pull up. She’s more finesse.’’
Norcross’ lone defeat this season came to Monacan 58-57. Manacan features UConn signee Megan Walker, who is rated the No. 1 senior player in the country. Walker made two free throws with 4 seconds left for the lead. ‘’Dog, she’s good,’’ Hembree said.
Norcross has beaten No. 3 McEachern, No. 7 Marietta, No. 9 Hillgrove and No. 10 Hillgrove in Class AAAAAAA as well as No. 1 Harrison (AAAAAA) and No. 1 Wesleyan (A private). Norcross also has beaten White Station of Memphis (ranked No. 15 nationally by MaxPreps), Highland Prep of Orlando (No. 3 in Florida’s Class 5A) and Homewood-Flossmoore (No. 5 in Illinois’ Class 4A).
‘’The kids are just working hard,’’ Hembree said. “I know everybody says that, but they really do. They really want to make a mark. A lot of times after players commit or sign, they’ve got one foot out the door. Not this crew. They want to make their senior year mean something.’’
The current lot of seniors could be the first since Hembree came to Norcross in 2009 not to win a state title, so that might be some motivation too. It’s a pretty high standard. Norcross was state runner-up in 2015 and reached the round of 16 in 2014 and 2015.
This season, defending champion McEachern still looms as a major threat. McEachern has won four of the past five state titles.
‘’We played McEachern early [and won 57-53],’’ Hembree said. ‘’It was the first game for each of us. I don’t know how much you can tell by that. Neither will be the same team at the end of the year. Hopefully we’ll both be better. They’ve gone out and played a brutal schedule, tougher than ours, so we’ll see.’’
Hembree also is wary of Collins Hill, but pegs McEachern as the team the team to beat.
‘’Collins Hill, they’re young but extremely talented and huge,’’ she said. “So it depends on the matchups. We probably match up better with McEachern than Collins Hill, but McEachern can probably out-run Collins Hill. Who’s the favorite? I don’t know. If I had to put money, I’d say McEachern again, not because they are more talented, but because they have the experience.’’
But for now, Norcross is No. 1, like old times.
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Credit: Jason Getz/AJC