DULUTH, GA - Talk to someone that just visited Savannah, Georgia for the first time and they will probably tell you that they never knew that such a magical place existed. Talk to someone that just watched Savannah Beach High School boys basketball team for the first time and they will probably tell you that they didn't know such a talented squad existed down there either.
That is the magic of Savannah. Unless you have been there, it is just another place on the map. Tucked away on the Georgia coastline, four hours away from Atlanta, the fine folks of the charming city don't get caught up in too much.
That is the beauty of a team like Beach. All eyes this year in 5A basketball have been on Wheeler, the top team in the Peach State and ranked nationally by every high school hoops maven on the planet. Then there is Norcross, featuring four Division I players.
Even Westlake (31-0), Dunwoody and Columbia garnered more attention this year than Beach. Atlantans don't get caught up in the goings on to their in-state neighbors either. Maybe they do now.
Beach, a team unranked for the majority of the regular season, knocked off Wheeler 72-63 in the Class 5A state championship game on Thursday night at the Gwinnett Arena.
Wheeler, winners of 52 straight games against Georgia foes, was not only picked to win and possibly take on Norcross, but put a flat out drumming on Beach.
Playing with poise and relentless defense right from the tip, Beach went right at the national power. Sophomore point guard James Fields played with a stone face and a steel heart all game long, getting into the lane for buckets and finding his teammates for scores.
The star sophomore had a team high 15 points and seven assists in the victory. His defense, though, was the key.
Wheeler's best asset is the strength of its guard play. Fields, along with junior Brian Baxter, frustrated the Wildcats senior star guards J.T. Tiller and James Florence.
The Marietta duo combined for just 17 points in the defeat. Both players fouled out. Tiller received a technical foul late in the second quarter for hanging on the rim on a dunk. The technical was also his third personal.
Wheeler big man J.J. Hickson might just be the best big man in the state but even he had a difficult time getting touches on the blocks as well as fighting through a mild ankle sprain he suffered in the first half. Hickson finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and five blocks.
Outside of the eye of everyone with the exception of Chatham County, no one knew of Beach. In fact, no one even gave them a chance to win. Heck, even those in Savannah didn't think they would go very deep in the playoffs.
"Even some of them at school was telling them that we were going to get crushed," Beach head coach Frank Williams said. "Our kids kept their poise. They believe in themselves."
It showed. With Williams's frantic substitution patterns, Beach constantly stayed fresh and pressured every Wheeler possession. Certainly proving that the sum is greater than its parts, Beach utilized several different weapons all night.
Big man Ladaris Green came alive in the second half, scoring 12 of his 14 points and kept Hickson away from the ball. Green also tallied seven blocks and six rebounds.
Senior guard Greg Thomas was the team's go-to guy for athletic plays all game long. On one possession, he skied just inside the free throw line
"One of the characteristics of this ball club is that they never get too excited and never really get rattled," Williams said. "That bodes well for us in a championship series."
"He is never going to pass ahead. All he sees is daylight and he is going for what he knows," Williams said of Thomas.
Thomas's dunk was a darn near solar explosion. The athletic 6-2 junior skied for a dunk and gave Beach an added exclamation point to their lead, which topped 12 points in the fourth quarter.
Beach will play Norcross at 8:30 on Friday night at the Gwinnett Center for the class 5A crown. As expected Norcross, a Gwinnett County school, will have a large pro-Blue Devil crowd. No problem, says Williams.
Beach is used to playing in front of big crowds. The Beach-Savannah game usually draws 5,000 people at Savannah State.
"These guys are used to it," Williams said. "As long as they Play hard, play together and care about each other they will be good."