DECATUR - For three quarters the Greater Atlanta Christian girls basketball team played like the No. 1 team in Class AA.
In the fourth quarter Avondale showed why it is ranked No. 2, nearly coming all the way back from a 16-point deficit.
After watching its lead shrink to a few as three in the fourth quarter, GAC used the power of the free throw line to defeat Region 6-AA foe Avondale 65-58.
"We did a good job in the second half of making our free throws, where in the first half we didn't do as good," GAC head coach Mike Mitchell said.
And no Spartan did a better job of making her free throws than Bria Smith, who was 6 of 8 from the line - and all six came in a fourth quarter in which Smith scored eight of her 15 points.
"It was a big thing for me to go in there and hit my free throws," Smith said. "They are free."
For the first three quarters it didn't look like free throws would play a role for the Spartans (18-1, 10-0 Region 6-AA). After Avondale (17-3, 9-1) shot out to an 8-2 lead early in the first quarter, GAC spent the rest of the half outscoring the Blue Devils 28-9.
The Spartans made the run with the help of five 3-pointers, while making the height advantage of Avondale disappear with a zone defense and scrappy rebounding from D'Nay Daniels and Cree Nix, who each pulled in eight on the night.
Daniels also led the Spartans in scoring with 17.
"They've got that 6-3 kid who can play and score and we focused on that sort of thing," Mitchell said.
The focus worked, shutting down the 6-foot-3 Nichole Stroud and holding her to just eight points and eight rebounds despite her glaring height advantage.
GAC extended its lead by three in the third quarter to take a 48-32 lead into the final frame.
To start the fourth, the Spartans drained a minute off the clock before Smith knocked down her only field goal of the quarter and GAC appeared to be in control.
That's when Avondale freshman Alicia Andrews and the Blue Devils' press showed up.
Andrews, who led all scorers with 21, scored 11 of those in the fourth quarter and Avondale's full-court press rattled the Spartans, forcing a slew of turnovers.
"In the fourth quarter we did a horrible job offensively," Mitchell said. "Their press stepped up and we didn't."
Over the next five minutes GAC managed just five points, all free throws, and with 2:08 left in the game the Blue Devils' Anjelica Mealing hit a 3 from the top of the key to cut GAC's lead to just three points.
But after a Spartan timeout, GAC rattled off a string of free throws to build its lead back to 11, a pair of those coming from Smith.
"Composure was our biggest thing," Smith said. "Coach Mitchell said 'This is our game, stay focused.' As a senior leader I took that to heart."
The win comes in the first of two regular season meetings between the state's top-ranked teams and Mitchell said it is always good to get the first one.
"They know that's what it takes," Mitchell said. "It gives us more confidence knowing we can beat them, but maybe that fourth quarter gives them a little confidence, too.
"That'll keep us focused on the little things."
On the boys side it was GAC which had to mount a fourth-quarter comeback. But the Spartans managed to come back all the way, beating Avondale 61-59.
The Spartans trailed by 10 late in the fourth quarter, but thanks to its aggressive press chipped quickly away at the deficit and with 1:14 left in the game Taylor Wood pulled down one of his 23 rebounds and laid it back in to tie the game at 59.
Then, after an Avondale traveling turnover with 12 seconds left, Wood notched his final rebound and basket of the game to take the lead at the buzzer.
Wood added 26 points to his 23 rebounds while Brett Johnson and Taylor Metzger each added 12 for GAC (10-8, 5-5).
Lee Jackson led Avondale (1-13, 1-9) with 14 points.