NORCROSS, GA -- Norcross head coach Eddie Martin took a moment in his office alone after his team's epic 64-63 victory against Wheeler, guzzled down a Gatorade and took a deep breath.
After all, he may have coached one of the greatest games in Georgia's storied state playoff history.
"That was, for sure, what high school basketball is all about," Martin said in between swigs of a refreshment.
For the standing room only crowd of 4,500-plus people that were on hand for the first round game of state playoffs, they would absolutely agree. Norcross, a nationally ranked program, happened to be the team that made the last shot in a game that went back and forth like a heavy weight boxing match.
The game went down to the final seconds and with less than 12 seconds to play, Wheeler had three chances to win the game right at the basket. Point guard Corey Towers blew by his defender and got right to the rim but missed a point blank shot. A quick rebound and tip by J.J. Hickson went off the rim and a final rebound and attempt by one of the many flying arms missed before Norcross's Al-Farouq Aminu secured the rebound as time expired.
"Coming into the game, I had a feeling it was going to be one of the most exciting, most packed games of my high school career," Norcross senior forward Gani Lawal said. "And it was."
The game had all of the storylines in it. The premiere match-up of Lawal and Hickson, the only McDonald's All-Americans in Georgia this season, highlighted the game.
Norcross boasts two other high-major signees in Tony Neysmith (Oklahoma) and Jordan DeMercy (Florida State). The underclassmen aren't too shabby either as Aminu, is a five-star junior, and sophomore guards Taariq Muhammad and Denzail Jones all have big game potential.
Wheeler knows a little something about talent, too. Guard Adrian Williams is headed to Brown while forward Trey Lang is bound for UMass. Junior DeQuan Jones is a budding high-major prospect and Towers is as quick as they come. Freshman point guard Phil Taylor is a rising star in the Peach State.
In their first pairing in their regular season high school career, the Lawal-Hickson match-up was as good as advertised. The future ACC foes locked horns all game long and both big men had big time moments.
Lawal ended the game with 21 points (11-14 FG), seven rebounds, five blocks and four steals. Hickson finished with 18 points (8-16 FG), 13 rebounds, three steals and a pair of blocks.
Lawal's ability to body up Hickson on the blocks was outstanding as he wore out the future NC State big man and took the bounce out of his legs, which caused a problem late in the third quarter and beyond. Lawal also made several key blocks to help keep Wheeler at an arm's distance on the scoreboard.
Lawal went to work in the post and did most of his damage above the rim with thunderous dunks, many times on defenders. As been the case all season long, Lawal got stronger as the game went along. His only flaw in the game was a key missed free throw late in the fourth quarter.
"(Lawal) did what he should have done," Martin said. "He's a big time player and played great on the big stage. Next year when he's at Cameron Indoor or at Carolina, he's going to be prepared because he's played in these intense atmospheres."
Hickson started slow but picked up the pace as the game went along, particularly in the middle quarters. He used a number of his patented post moves to overcome the stellar defense that Lawal applied on him.
"I have the utmost respect for Wheeler and for J.J.," Lawal said. "He's a great player and played a great game."
The McDonald's All-Americans were outstanding in their only meeting and mirrored such storied big man battles in the Peach State like Dwight Howard against Randolph Morris.
Norcross's other big man, Aminu, was handcuffed with fouls early, picking up two unavoidable penalties within the first two minutes of the game.
He was essentially non-existent in the first half but responded nicely after halftime. Aminu drilled a pull-up three-pointer from the right wing and took a page out of Lawal's book, slamming home a number of dunks. He finished with 14 points and seven rebounds.
When Aminu went to the bench, Jones, a sophomore guard, had the hot hand. The 5-foot-8 guard drilled a pair of three-pointers, very key three-pointers, and finished with 14 game deciding points.
The point guard play for both teams was outstanding.
Norcross could not have had the success it had down low without the pinpoint passing from Muhammad. The 6-foot-1 sophomore floor general finished with 10 assists, six rebounds and three points.
Taylor, 2010's version of Florida bound New York guard Erving Walker, was poised and unflappable in the intense atmosphere. Taylor, all 5-foot-7 of him, finished with 13 points (three three-pointers), eight giant rebounds and five assists for Wheeler.
Wheeler had 10 points, five rebounds and three blocks from Jones, a three-star wing, and nine points from Towers.
"It's about manhood," Lawal said. "It's all about manning up and who wants it the most."
In this game, Norcross was the team that manned up the most in a game that went toe to toe for 32 minutes.