Since it opened in 1986, Meadowcreek athletics has been the punchline of many bad jokes. In Gwinnett County, where state titles seem to be minted by the dozen, Meadowcreek was the exception. The Mustangs were always the homecoming opponent, the perpetual last-place team.
That changed on Saturday night.
The Mustangs, thanks to a tremendous defensive fourth quarter, defeated rival Norcross 56-43 to win the Class AAAAAAA boys basketball championship at Georgia Tech. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, coach Curtis Gilleylen turned his tall body toward the Meadowcreek crowd and raised his arms in triumph.
It was the first state basketball championship in school history.
The powder-blue clad Mustang students seated in the end zone erupted in delight, even more so when the players and Gilleylen approached them afterwards to celebrate the moment. The bedlam lasted quite a while, until players had finished hugging all their parents, relatives and close friends and retreated into the quiet of the locker room.
“We’re going down as legends … everybody,” said Meadowcreek senior Jamir Chapman. “This is our night. It was fabulous.”
Gilleylen said, “This is fulfilling. All the hard work … all the naysayers … everybody who doubted us.”
This was the fourth time the two Region 7 foes had played. Norcross had won each of the previous meetings, but two games were decided on buzzer-beaters, causing Meadowcreek to believe it had a chance. On Saturday the game was tied at 36-36 in the fourth quarter when the Mustangs went on a 13-1 run and took command.
“We knew we had to come in and execute at the end of the game,” junior Amari Kelly said. “The last three times we played them, we were up in the fourth quarter and made some bad decisions, missed free throws. We knew we were the better team. We just had to finish out the game strong.”
Meadowcreek (26-6) was led in scoring by Dequarius Nicholas, who had 16 points and eight rebounds. Chapman added 13 points and five rebounds and Kelly had 12 points and eight rebounds. Cory Hightower had a game-high 11 rebonds.
Norcross (28-4) got 14 points and seven rebounds from Kyle Sturdivant and 13 points from Brandon Boston, who fouled out with 6:10 left in the game. It was the second straight year the Blue Devils have lost in the championship game.
“For us the key was slowing the pace,” Gilleylen said. “If we’d got in a running match, we’d definitely got blown out. We were getting the ball inside and we knew most of their sets and we were trying to limit them from going where they wanted to go. We were successful with that.”
The first half was dead-even, with both teams trading small leads. Meadowcreek enjoyed a five-point lead and Norcross led by three points. Otherwise both teams spent the first half trying to get the ball inside, with Meadowcreek scoring 18 points in the paint and holding a 27-26 lead at the break.
“It means a lot,” Kelly said. “This is our first state championship. I only got here last year and we turned the program around. I’m proud we did all this in one year.”
Gilleylen said the good times are just starting for the Mustangs, who went from an underdog to top dog this season.
“It feels good,” Gilleylen said. “This is for the Meadowcreek community. We’ve been an underdog community for so long. This is going to put Meadowcreek on the map.”