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Norcross' London Johnson: 'We had to keep our foot on (Berkmar's) necks and continue to make the right plays'

Playing with a cut under his left eye, the four-star junior did it all to avenge three earlier-season losses to the Patriots and lead Norcross to the 7A state title.

By David Friedlander | Photos by Ed Turlington

MACON, Ga. — The fourth time was the charm for Norcross against Berkmar, and it came at a charmed time for the Blue Devils.

After three losses to the Patriots this season, Norcross found the formula it took to vanquish its nemesis for a 58-45 win Saturday night in the Class 7A boys basketball state championship game.

London Johnson had a game-high 27 points along with eight rebounds and four steals, and Jerry Deng added 14 points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots as Norcross (26-6) won its first state title since 2013.

Norcross' two losses to Berkmar (26-5) — in the regular season and another in the region tournament final last month — came by a combined nine points, and Blue Devils coach Jesse McMillan said the difference Saturday was a lot smaller than one might think.

“We didn't necessarily change the game plan,” said McMillan, who has guided Norcross to three of its six state championships since 2006 and was an assistant under Georgia coaching legend Eddie Martin for the other three. “We changed some matchups, but we played them three times (this season), and each time, neither team was at full strength. … So we played them three times, but we didn't really play them three times.

“The game plan (Saturday) night was to pack (the defense) in, make (Berkmar) beat us with jump shots. We knew they were going to attack the glass. We just kind of switched a few individual matchups. We really didn't change much.”

One thing that did change was that the Blue Devils took a more aggressive approach to Saturday's game, a lesson McMillan learned when he was in Patriots coach Greg Phillips' shoes back in 2018.

In that season, Norcross had beaten another region rival, Meadowcreek, three times in close games leading up to a fourth matchup in the title game, where the Mustangs turned the tables on the Blue Devils to win their first state title.

“I don't think the kids understand that because kids live in their own little bubble,” McMillan said. “They think they're going to win every single game, but I remember how difficult it was and ultimately, the pressure is on the team that won those (first three games).

“(And this year), we beat Lowndes at Lowndes (in the second round), North (Gwinnett) at North (in the quarterfinals), Newton in the final four and Berkmar here. I mean, you have to be aggressive (to pull that off). You're not going to win those games being passive.”

There was nothing passive about the way Norcross played Saturday, especially Johnson, who suffered a cut under his left eye in the Blue Devils' previous game.

“This happened after we won the (semifinal over Newton),” the 6-foot-4, 160-pound junior said. “My teammate Mier (Panoam) accidentally head-butted me, and it started bleeding.”

With that as background, Johnson and the Blue Devils were undeterred, even as physical as Berkmar was Saturday.

That physicality backfired on the Patriots, who had to endure foul trouble to several key players, including Ole Miss-bound, four-star post Malique Ewin, three-star senior guard Jameel Rideout and senior Brycen Blaine.

Ewin (13 points, 8 rebounds) and Blaine (12 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals) fouled out, while Rideout (13 points) saw his minutes curtailed after picking up his third and fourth fouls in the third quarter.

But the biggest blow to Berkmar's hopes came even before that foul trouble became critical during a key sequence midway through the third quarter.

A dunk by Ewin capped a 6-0 run that turned a four-point deficit into a 31-30 lead for the Patriots with 3:51 left in the period.

But just 18 seconds later, Johnson took a pass from Hezekiah Flagg in stride and hit a 3-pointer from the right wing while drawing Rideout's third foul.

The ensuing free throw made it a four-point play and pushed Norcross back into the lead — for good, as it turned out — at 34-31.

“We had to keep our foot on (Berkmar's) necks and continue to make the right plays when we needed to,” Johnson said. “I think we came out (from the beginning) with a chip on our shoulder. Everybody did everything they could do to win the game.”

Blaine pulled Berkmar as close as 40-37 following his three-point play with 6:16 remaining, but foul trouble continued to pile up on the Patriots.

Johnson delivered the dagger with a 3-pointer with 4:55 left and a steal and layup 16 seconds later to extend the lead to eight.

Johnson, Deng and Samarion Bond (13 points, five rebounds) all hit key free throws down the stretch to set off a Norcross celebration, following the girls' championship win earlier Saturday with another Blue Devils trophy.

It also initiated McMillan to fulfill a promise made to his wife Elizabeth weeks ago — an appointment with his razor to shave off a beard he'd been growing since the beginning of the season.

“Personally, I think it looks good … in pictures,” McMillan joked. “We had some mojo somewhere. I don't know if it was my beard … or something.”

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