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North Oconee boys basketball caps historic season with first state championship

North Oconee senior Byrd Carter shoots a floater during the Titans’ 65-60 state championship win over Holy Innocents’. (Photo by Stuart Steele)

The North Oconee High School boys basketball team made history. Again.

On Wednesday night, the Titans defeated Holy Innocents’ 65-60 in the 4A state championship game in Macon, earning the first state title in program history.

As impressive as the Titans were while blowing out Lovett and Central in the first two rounds of the playoffs, what has defined this team is its play in close games. North Oconee faced adversity, trailing in the second half of each of its last three playoff games. But every time the team’s back was against the wall, the players responded with clutch plays to close out victories.

Defense has been an emphasis of head coach Rick Rasmussen all season. On Wednesday, the Titans did an excellent job against five-star 2025 prospect Caleb Wilson.

Sophomore Khamari Brooks was a huge part of the Titans’ gameplan against Wilson, serving as the primary defender against him for much of the game, with well-timed double- and sometimes triple-teams from North Oconee forcing passes to other members of the Golden Bears.

“When you have a guy of that caliber, I’m not backing off of anybody, I’ll take the challenge,” Brooks said. “All week in practice we’re working on it, so I’m not going to back down from the challenge, I’m gonna sit there and guard him.”

North Oconee sophomore Khamari Brooks goes up strong for a layup in the Titans’ 65-60 state championship win over Holy Innocents’. (Photo by Stuart Steele)

Brooks also added 14 points on offense and grabbed 6 rebounds, capping his spectacular sophomore campaign with a strong all-around game.

Wilson made a key mistake with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, calling for a timeout when Holy Innocents’ had none remaining. Rasmussen posited that fatigue may have played a factor in Wilson’s error, one that gave the Titans two free throws and possession in a 60-57 game.

Offensively, North Oconee freshman Justin Wise came up huge down the stretch. After a slow start, scoring just 3 points in the first half, Wise scored 16 points in the second half, including three straight 3-pointers in the midst of a 14-0 run for the Titans.

North Oconee freshman Justin Wise shoots a 3-pointer during the Titans’ 65-60 state championship win over Holy Innocents’. (Photo by Stuart Steele)

Rasmussen said that he told Wise before the game that this was a chance for him to put himself on the map as a recruit to watch out for for college teams.

“I told Justin, this is an opportunity for you to play well, and we knew that college scouts would be here,” Rasmussen said. “This guy deserves to already have a Division I offer, he’s that talented. I’ve had Division I players, and this guy is a no-brainer basketball player of the highest level.”

Senior Byrd Carter led the Titans with 20 points, running the offense with consistency and hitting key shots throughout the game.

Carter said after the game that he never could have envisioned winning a state championship during his freshman year at North Oconee.

“Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t think winning a state championship was even an option,” Carter said. “And the fact that in my senior year, this is crazy. To go out on 30-3, region champs and state champs, it’s just an unreal feeling.”

Conversely, senior Evan Montgomery said that he’d envisioned winning a state championship for North Oconee since before he was even on the varsity team.

“I’ve had a list of goals on my wall since I made the C-team. I wasn’t even on varsity,” Montgomery said. “One of them said ‘Win a state championship’ and we came in here and did that.”

North Oconee senior Evan Montgomery with the state championship trophy after the Titans’ 65-60 win over Holy Innocents’. (Photo by Stuart Steele)

Montgomery scored 7 points and grabbed 9 rebounds, also chipping in with important defensive possessions against Wilson. He’s been a force for the Titans all year on the boards, on the defensive end and as the team’s most prolific in-game dunker.

All five of North Oconee’s starters played a key role. Senior Justin Payne, who had an off shooting night, going 1-10, still posted 8 assists and hit three clutch free throws in the final minute to help seal the win.

North Oconee senior Justin Payne lobs a pass to senior Evan Montgomery for an alley-oop slam in the Titans’ state championship win against Holy Innocents’. (Photo by Stuart Steele)

Holy Innocents’ was a two-man show, with Wilson and Devin Hutcherson combining for 49 of the Golden Bears’ 60 points. North Oconee’s starting five played as one, each player contributing to the team’s success.

Rasmussen spoke about his senior class, made up of Byrd Carter, Evan Montgomery, Justin Payne, Shep Thompson and Chase Scott after the game.

“This team started at the top with the seniors. Five seniors that have incredible trust and belief, sacrificial attitudes and leadership for our younger kids to follow,” Rasmussen said. “The leadership of our seniors has been the best I’ve ever had. This is the best chemistry team I’ve had, low maintenance, they just do everything we asked them to do.”

The 2024 senior class is the winningest in team history, having won 96 games over the course of the last four years. The seniors won the first region championship and state championship in program history, winning the state championship in spite of the program having never made it to the Elite Eight before.

“It’s just amazing, the feeling of it,” Montgomery said. “It’s the perfect way to go out, senior year, there is no better way, we took it as far as we could possibly go. We played together, they’re my brothers and we’re going down in history. We’re never going to be forgotten now.”

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