The boys’ final four is now set – Grayson vs. Norcross and McEachern vs. Tift County - for Saturday at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.
Tift’s victory at No. 3 Newton is probably the largest surprise, although perhaps Tift (27-2) and south Georgia were just underestimated this season. Two years ago, Tift was the defending champion and lost at home in the first round to Newton in a similar surprise.
Newton went on to make the quarterfinals, then the semifinals in 2016, and by all accounts, this Newton team could’ve gone to the finals or even won the title.
But seventh-ranked Tift showed that it isn’t done being a state power, even in the absence of former greats such as Tadric Jackson and Brannen Greene.
In beating Newton 75-66, Preston Horne (a Virginia Tech commit) scored 25 points. The Covington News’ Gabriel Stovall credited him with at least 12 rebounds and four blocks. Rashod Bateman had 19. Newton’s J.D. Notae scored 25 for Newton and ended his great high school career. He is headed to Jacksonville.
‘’ Tift suffocated them with that man defense, and even though their bigs are smaller than Westlake's they were much more active in the paint,'' Stovall said. "Horne is a beast down low. Their guards played better than I expected.''
Tift County now will play No. 1-ranked McEachern in the semifinals. McEachern improved to 29-0 with a 75-60 victory over No. 6 Wheeler. McEachern’s Isaac Okoro, a state player-of-the-year candidate despite his sophomore status, scored 29 points.
McEachern became No. 1 in the rankings around Jan. 1 after a holiday win over Wheeler. Any question that McEachern’s weaker region scheduled might’ve dulled the knife proved wrong. McEachern also has wins over Allatoona, Hughes and Miller Grove, which have made the semis in lower classifications, although that was some 25+ games ago.
The last undefeated boys team in the highest classification was Dunwoody (29-0) in 1995.
Norcoss’s victory over No. 2 Pebblebrook was an upset too, considering it was on the road against a higher-ranked opponent and reversed the outcome of a Dec. 29 game. Pebblebrook had beaten Norcross 77-69 when Collin Sexton scored 38 points and Norcross star Rayshaun Hammonds was held to four.
This time, Hammonds scored 10 points in the first quarter alone and finished with 22, according to the Gwinnett Daily Post. Norcross led only 44-38 entering the fourth but held Pebblebrook to eight points in the final period and broke out to a 23-point lead. Kyle Sturdivant finished with 21 points. Collin Sexton scored 29 of Pebblebrook’s 60 points.
Pebblebrook had reached the state finals two seasons in a row, but this – perhaps the Falcons’ most talented group yet – fell short.
Norcross is in the semifinals for the fourth time in seven seasons. The Blue Devils won in 2011 and 2013 under Jesse McMillan and three times under Eddie Martin before that. Remember that this was a top-25 nationally ranked team until losing to Pebblebrook in December, so it’s no great surprise that the Devils are here.
And then there’s Grayson, the unranked Cinderella, in its first-ever semifinal. Grayson hadn’t even won a state-playoff game until last year and lost some key players from last year's team, so give coach Geoffrey Pierce high credit for the work he's doing there. Grayson (21-9) beat Brookwood 73-51. Kenyon Jackson finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds, and Gerald Buncum had 12 points and 13 rebounds, per the Gwinnett Daily Post.
R8 #3 Grayson 73, R7 #4 Brookwood 51
R7 #1 Norcross 82, R2 #1 Pebblebrook 60
R1 #1 Tift County 75, R8 #1 Newton 66
R3 #1 McEachern 75, R2 #3 Wheeler 60
Saturday's SEMIFINALS at the University of West Georgia
Grayson vs. Norcross, 4 p.m.
McEachern vs. Tift County, 8 p.m.