That’s what happened to the Hawks, who had a 42-41 lead early in the final period, but found themselves on the wrong side of an 11-3 Norcross run that resulted in a 60-48 loss in Saturday’s Class AAAAAA state championship at the Macon Centreplex.
Keith Ray totaled 13 points and five rebounds for Hillgrove (28-5). B.J. Brown came off the bench to post 12 points, including four 3-pointers, and seven boards. Kyle Castlin came into the game averaging 21 points, but was held to eight due to foul trouble.
Brown’s 3-pointer with 7:10 remaining in the game gave Hillgrove a 42-41 advantage, but Brandon Goodwin’s layup almost a minute later ignited a 6-0 run for Norcross (27-6), which took a 47-42 lead with 5:14 left.
Brown’s fourth 3-pointer cut the deficit to 47-45, but Goodwin, who led with a game-high 22 points, answered with his only 3-pointer of the contest. Ricky Madison’s putback less than a minute later then gave the Blue Devils a 52-45 advantage with 3:25 on the clock.
Ray’s jumper brought Hillgrove to within 52-47, but Norcross went 8-of-12 from the free-throw line down the stretch to earn the victory.
A big difference in the game was Norcross’ ability to get points in transition and inside the paint. The Blue Devils totaled 12 fast-break points, compared to two for the Hawks. Norcross also outscored Hillgrove 32-12 in the paint.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” Hillgrove coach Ed Morris said. “They gave a great effort and were very composed the whole game. Norcross is a great team and they did a good job getting out in transition and getting good looks at the basket with some drives into the lane.
“We were probably a little tired in the fourth quarter. It was a tough, physical game, but our kids played their tails off. I’m really proud of their effort and the way they represented themselves and the Hillgrove community.
Hillgrove led 25-24 at halftime and 39-38 with 1:40 left in the third period after a jumper from Ray. Norcross scored the next three points to stake a 41-39 margin at the end of the frame, leading to the dramatic moments of the fourth.
Norcross outscored Hillgrove 36-23 in the second half, including 19-9 in the fourth quarter.
Khalen Pinkett finished with 11 points and three assists for the Blue Devils, while Madison had 12 points off the bench and totaled three steals.
“From the beginning of the season, our coaches told us we had to keep (opponents) under a certain amount of points,” said Pinkett, who won his second straight state title after transferring from Whitefield Academy. “Basically, we took that to heart. We told them we want to dominate on defense, and our defense sets it up for our offense.”
Norcross turned the ball over only nine times, compared to 16 for Hillgrove. Norcross had an 8-4 advantage in steals and made 19 of 26 free throws, versus the Hawks’ 10-for-12 rate.
Hillgrove shot 37 percent from the floor overall, while Norcross was an even 50 percent.
“We knew (Hillgrove) was going to make some shots,” said Norcross coach Jesse McMillan, who led the Blue Devils to their fifth title since 2006. “Nobody makes the state championship without being able to score. We felt like we had a plan defensively, and we stuck to it for the most part.
“At the end of the game, we were just able to contest those shots and rebound. That’s what we were hoping to do the whole game.”
Hillgrove got off to a slow start in the first quarter. The Hawks turned the ball over three times and missed two shots in their first five possessions of the game. However, it was Hillgrove’s defense that kept them in the contest as the Hawks limited Norcross to 29-percent shooting in the first period.
Hillgrove made 36 percent of its shots, including back-to-back 3-pointers from John Franklin and Ray that put the Hawks in front 6-2 with 2:54 on the clock.
Norcross tied the contest on a layup from Goodwin and took its second lead — 9-8 — with 1:01 left after Madison’s 3.
The Hawks held a 10-9 margin at the end of the first quarter when Norcross was called for goaltending on Castlin’s layup.
Both offenses picked up in the second quarter. Ray nailed down his second 3-pointer to spark a 10-0 Hillgrove run and 20-9 lead with 5:13 remaining.
The Hawks’ play selection changed, too, as they attacked the basket more in the frame. Hillgrove made five of six free throws during the spurt and Castlin’s layup added to the lead.
Norcross’ switch to a zone defense created turnovers for the Blue Devils. Their five steals led to four straight layups during a 10-0 run that pulled them to within 20-19.
Brown’s 3-pointer snapped the streak, and Pickett’s three-point play with 49.7 on the clock closed the half with Hillgrove leading 25-24.