Class 7A: Semifinal coverage from Georgia State

Norcross, Brookwood girls; Wheeler, Cherokee boys advance to finals in Macon.
The Wheeler Wildcats react to basket by Rickey Mckenzie (5) late in the second half of a GHSA Class 7A semifinal basketball game Saturday, March 4, 2023 in Atlanta.

Credit: Daniel Varnado/Special to the AJC

Credit: Daniel Varnado/Special to the AJC

The Wheeler Wildcats react to basket by Rickey Mckenzie (5) late in the second half of a GHSA Class 7A semifinal basketball game Saturday, March 4, 2023 in Atlanta.

IGirls: Norcross 58, Buford 46

Although they were losing by three points at halftime, the defending Class 7A champion and third-ranked Norcross girls didn’t make any changes. They just returned to their season-long form and came back to beat No. 2 Buford 58-46 at the GSU Convocation Center.

“Going in down three at the half, I felt pretty good about it,” Norcross coach Ashley Luke Clanton said. “We just told them, no one’s taking the ball out of our hands anymore. Take care of the basketball, play with confidence … and we’ve been there before.”

The win puts No. 2 Norcross (28-3) in position to win back-to-back titles for the first time since 2010-11. The Blue Devils have won four state championships.

Norcross was slow to handle the vaunted Buford all-out attack. They lost passes, failed to get loose balls and had a difficult time getting acclimated. But that all changed in the third quarter, when Norcross outscored the Wolves 18-6. A 9-2 run put the Blue Devils ahead to stay.

“Early on we played a little too fast,” Clanton said. “Our spacing was great. So we had to kind of talk about that, how we wanted to stretch them out. And once we kind of pulled that post out real far and deep in the backside, they got a little high and heavy. We got a few gimmies, which in a game like this is nice, and our kids did a good job navigating what we were trying to set up for them.”

Norcross (29-2) was led by Veronaye Charlton with 19 points, 11 of those in the second half. Jania Akins added 13 and Markeiesa Lancaster scored 10.

Buford (27-4) was led by junior Ava Grace Watson with 23 points, with only seven coming in the second half. The Blue Devils, particularly Kayla Lindsey, did a good job keeping the ball out of the four-star recruit’s hands and were close to contesting all her shots.

“That’s what you have to do it order to stop them and Kayla has been a kid what has guarded some phenomenal players,” Clanton said. “We know we have an answer when we play somebody that’s got a good scorer.”

Cherokee coach Joe Veihman draws up a play on the sideline during the 7A semifinal game against Norcross. Cherokee won the game 63-60 in overtime on March 4, 2023, at Georgia State.

Credit: Stan Awtrey

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Credit: Stan Awtrey

Boys: Cherokee 63, Norcross 60 OT

No. 8 Cherokee made five of six free throws in overtime and stunned No. 4 Norcross, eliminating the defending champions 63-60. The Warriors earned a place in the championship game for the first time since 1982 when they lost to Campbell and legendary coach David Boyd.

“They said we couldn’t win in this region. They said we couldn’t win in 7A. They said we couldn’t win with home-grown kids,” Cherokee coach Joe Veihman said. “They said we couldn’t guard man-to-man against the best in the country. All this group has done is proven it over and over again.”

Cherokee rebuffed any attempt by Norcross to put the game away in the third quarter. The Blue Devils twice led by six, but could not shake the Warriors.

“We played them last year in the first round – that was my first year as a head coach – and I wasn’t ready for it, my guys weren’t ready for it,” Veihman said. “But we knew after playing them last year that we had a chance.”

Norcross had an opportunity to win the game with 2.2 seconds, but fumbled the ball away on the baseline, sending it to overtime tied 54-54.

The Warriors took the lead for good when Tay Owens hit four straight free throws inside the final 46 seconds. Cayden Walsh missed the second of two free throws that could have clinched the game, but was able to get his own rebound. By the time Norcross could dig the ball back out, the Blue Devils were left with a desperation half-court shot at the buzzer that was no good.

“You don’t count them out,” Veihman said. “All they’ve done is set records all year, guys stepping up in big moments, guys picking me up. This group has accomplished everything single thing you can ask for of a high school group of kids in today’s age where nobody wants to sacrifice for each other. They sacrifice every single day and that’s what happens when you’ve got a team like that.”

Cherokee (25-6) was led by Braylin Giddens 19 points, 10 in the third quarter. Walsh scored 15 and Owens added 14. Cam Pope scored nine.

Norcross (27-5) got 18 points from Mier Panoam, 13 each from Lamariyon Jordan and Samarion Bund and five from Toby Ojukwu.

Brookwood’s Jade Weathersby shoots during the second half of a GHSA semi-final basketball game Saturday, March 4, 2023 in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado / For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

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Credit: Daniel Varnado

Girls: Brookwood 58, McEachern 53

The Brookwood girls have been ranked No. 1 all year. Now they finally get a chance to play for a championship after beating No. 6 McEachern 58-53. Brookwood be trying to win the school’s first championship.

“We have been wanting to focus on the rankings and things like that,” Brookwood coach Courtney Mincy said. “It’s just the process of one game at a time. We approached this game like any other game and now we’re where our goal was to get to. I’m just proud of them. It’s a humbling process, so I appreciate my girls trying to stay humble along the way.”

Brookwood (30-1) got 17 points each from Ohio State signed Diana Collins and Jada Weathersby and 10 points from Daniella Osho.

McEachern (20-9) was led by Kalise Hill with 20 points and Jada Bates with 16. Tam Williams scored eight.

McEachern had a 10-point lead at halftime, only to have Brookwood outscore them 23-13 and take a 44-38 lead into the final quarter.

“It’s a different atmosphere, a different energy,” Mincy said. “We had to kick out al the jitters and get back to how we play.”

Brookwood could not shake the Indians in the fourth quarter. They led by as many as seven points (55-48) but McEachern made it a three-point margin and had a chance to tie. Brookwood finally iced the game when Collins hit a pair of free throws with 4.7 seconds remaining.

“This is the time of year where you’ve got to step up,” Mincy said. “McEachern is a good team and they have some good talent on their team. We knew that from the scouting report. They made us work for it.”

Wheeler’s Jelani Hamilton (10) drives to the basket during the second half of a GHSA Class 7A semifinal basketball game Saturday, March 4, 2023 in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

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Credit: Daniel Varnado

Boys: Wheeler 67, Grayson 55

No. 1-ranked Wheeler needed a big fourth quarter to overcome a spirited Grayson team on Saturday and emerged with a 67-55 win over the No. 3-ranked Rams and earn a spot in the state championship game.

“We knew it would be kind of a tug of war,” said assistant coach Darnell Shepherd, who was filling in for head coach Larry Thompson. “As far as points are concerned, we want to play in the 70s and 80s and Grayson is more in the high 60s, so we knew something had to give. It just kind of went our way.”

Wheeler trailed by as many as eight points in the third quarter before using a 10-2 run to tie the game at 41-41 at 2:11. The game was tied three more times before the Wildcats took off in the fourth quarter on an 8-0 run that gave them a lead they never relinquished.

“We decided we weren’t going to shoot from the blue line and we were going to shoot from the high school line,” Shepherd said. “That had a little to do with it and I think what we saw was just a lot of nerves, guys being in this position for the first time and we did some uncharacteristic things, particularly in the first three quarters.”

Wheeler (26-6) was led by Arrinten Page and Isaiah Collier, who each scored 18 points, and Rickie McKenzie with 14. McKenzie scored 12 points in the third quarter.

“And he got us going defensively with some deflections and we were able to get some runouts and some transition 3s,” Shepherd said.

Grayson (24-6) got 15 points from Gicarri Harris and 12 points from C.J. Hyland.

“Our job isn’t finished,” Shepherd said. “We kind of fumbled it last year at Grovetown so we’re happy to have an opportunity to go back down there.”