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Cherokee guard Cam Pope pushes the pace in transition

NORCROSS -- Cherokee boys battled hard to stay with Norcross throughout the first half of their first-round Class AAAAAAAA state basketball tournament game.

But a pair of runs – one in the second quarter sparked by London Johnson and in the latter stages of the third keyed by Mier Panoam – that allowed the eighth-ranked Blue Devils to break the game open in the second half and cruise to a 73-46 victory Wednesday night at the House of Blue.

Norcross (22-6), had trouble building a lead against the pesky Warriors (16-10) in the early going.

Caleb Richardson's tap-in with 12 seconds left in the first quarter pulled them to within 17-14, but Samarion Bond answered with a tip-in of his own to beat the buzzer and push the lead back to 19-14 by the end of the opening frame.

In the second quarter, Johnson began to heat up, scoring seven of his game-high 21 points in the period.

But it was the job that Panoam did on the defensive end in holding Cherokee's leading scorer Tayden Owens to just eight points on the night – well below his season average – that played an equal role in an 11-4 run that gave Norcross a more comfortable 30-18 lead by halftime.

“I feel like the defense was consistent the entire time,” Norcross coach Jesse McMillan said. “We talked about … being ready to adapt with just how the game was going to be called, and the gym was humid. So I feel like once we kind of got our flow in the second quarter, the defense turned into some offense.

“Mier Panoam really stepped up and was really able to take advantage of his defensive matchup. … (Owens) came in averaging over 20 points per game. He had (only) two going into the fourth quarter, so Mier did a great job on both ends.”

Panoam was also a force on the offensive and after Cherokee clawed its way back as close as 36-27 with 5:33 left in the third quarter on a 9-5 run, keyed by seven points from Braylin Giddens.

The 6-foot-4 junior set up Bond for a layup and Johnson for another one in transition during a stretch of three Norcross buckets over the next 45 seconds.

Panoam then ended the third quarter with driving layups from each wing and started the fourth with consecutive 3-pointers over the first 1:13 to cap an 18-7 run that ballooned the Blue Devils lead to 54-32 with 6:47 left, and Cherokee never got any closer than 19.

Johnson had eight rebounds to go with his scoring, while Panoam chipped in 13 points and four assists and Bond also reached double-figure scoring with 11 points, along with four assists and three steals.

Jerry Deng (eight points, eight rebounds) and Hezekiah Flagg (eight points, four rebounds, four steals, two steals) also had a solid game for the Blue Devils, who earned a trip to Lowndes for a second-round contest this weekend.

Cameron Pope was the only Cherokee player in double figures with 10 points, along with three assists, while the Warriors also got nine points each from Giddens and Richardson (who also had eight rebounds), plus eight points each from Owens (six boards) and Dastin Hart.

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