HOSCHTON - Gwinnett's two Final Four girls basketball teams from last season qualified for the Class AAAAA state tournament on Tuesday night. One just had a much tougher time than the other.
Top-seeded Mill Creek shook off a slow start and rolled past Northview 62-27 in the Region 7-AAAAA tournament's first round, but fellow 2008 semifinalist Duluth very nearly saw its season end short of the state tourney.
The third-seeded Wildcats trailed No. 6 seed Collins Hill for most of the fourth quarter, then pulled away in overtime for a 52-48 victory. Duluth advances to play No. 2 seed Norcross in Thursday's semifinal round.
"This time of the year you just want to advance," relieved Duluth girls coach Jeremy Huckaby said. "We knew it would be tough. We knew it would be a four-quarter game. Collins Hill's well-coached and Jazmin Walker is as good as any player in our region. But I'm proud of my girls. Not much went right for them in the second half and they hung in there."
Duluth (20-6) led by four at halftime, only to see a big third quarter from Collins Hill switch the momentum. The Eagles took a 36-32 lead into the fourth quarter thanks to Walker, who scored a game-high 19 points.
The underdogs held the lead until 1:01 was left in regulation, when Duluth's Aliya Thomas (12 points) made a huge 3-pointer to give her team a 44-43 lead. The Wildcats then missed a pair of 1-and-1 free-throw situations, allowing Collins Hill to tie the score.
Walker was fouled with 16.8 seconds left and made the second free throw to force the deadlock. Duluth held for a final shot, but Mykala Walker's attempt was blocked by Crystal Chaney (nine points).
On the first possession of overtime, Thomas made another clutch 3-pointer and Collins Hill never rebounded from that deficit.
"(Thomas) has been sick as a dog, that's why she didn't play much in the first half," Huckaby said. "But she can flat out shoot it. She hit some big shots for us tonight."
Daphne Adebayo led Duluth with 13 points and Ravven Brown added nine points. Collins Hill also got nine points from Bailey Holmes.
Mill Creek's players watched from outside their locker room as Duluth went through a scary game, then the Hawks (21-4) took most of the suspense out of their matchup with eighth-seeded Northview.
The state's No. 4 team made just 1 of 7 shots to start the game, resulting in just a 4-2 lead at the midway point of the first quarter.
"I thought we played well early, we just didn't shoot all that well early," Mill Creek coach Ashley Phillips said. "That was probably a little nerves knowing that you have to win this game or your season's over."
But when the shots started falling for the Hawks, the score got lopsided. Up 29-15 at halftime, Mill Creek went on an 8-0 run in less than a minute to start the third quarter that put the game away.
Phillips' team got 30 bench points to Northview's 2, sparked by a 12-point game from Jasmine Sublett. Moneshia Simmons led the hosts with 13 points and nine rebounds and Tia Williams also chipped in with nine points.
Mill Creek plays Chattahoochee in Thursday's semifinals at North Gwinnett.