Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. North Gwinnett's Shay Fleetwood (1) and the rest of the Bulldogs celebrate their region tournament win over Peachtree Ridge on Wednesday night.
HOSCHTON -- A miserable, turnover-plagued second quarter put the deal Tony Watkins gave to his North Gwinnett girls players in jeopardy for a second straight basketball season.
Make the Class AAAAA state tournament, Watkins offered, and the veteran coach would shave his mustache off for the first time in 32 years. The reward went unclaimed a season ago, but the Bulldogs made sure that wouldn't happen again with a 39-36 comeback win over Peachtree Ridge in the Region 7-AAAAA tournament Wednesday night.
"I'm not going to shave my head, it won't grow back," said Watkins, whose team trailed 26-14 at halftime. "At least we're still playing. We've made state three times in four years. I wish we'd made it last year, too. But I'm just happy for my players."
North, which advances to play top-ranked Norcross Friday at 4 p.m. in the 7-AAAAA semifinals at Peachtree Ridge, fell apart in the second quarter but overcame it.
The Bulldogs (18-7) turned the ball over 11 times in the second quarter, including nine times in their first 10 possessions. That led to a 16-0 Peachtree Ridge run that put the Lions up 26-12 before an Abby Slocumb basket in the waning seconds of the first half. That broke a nearly six-minute spell with no North scoring.
The mood wasn't great in the locker room at halftime, but there was no panic.
"We've been a comeback team all year," said Annie Wheeler, who led North with 15 points and eight rebounds.
"If we're losing at halftime, it doesn't faze us," Slocumb said.
Peachtree Ridge (14-13) then suffered its own misery in an eight-turnover third quarter that featured 1 of 7 shooting. The Lions were outscored 12-2 in the third quarter, then they surrendered the lead early in fourth quarter and never led again. North got a nice second-half lift offensively from Ariel Johnson, who scored eight points.
But they didn't quit, even as guard Erika Waters fouled out with 1:29 left. North's leading scorer, Stephanie Wheeler, fouled out five seconds later, forcing her to watch the final frantic seconds from the bench. Wheeler finished with eight points on an off night offensively, but had a game-high four steals.
Slocumb and Wheeler came up with two big defensive plays in the waning moments, partially blocking back-to-back 3-point attempts by Peachtree Ridge's Brittany Jack (nine points, six rebounds despite an ailing ankle) in the final 13 seconds.
Both shots went out of bounds to the Lions, who saw their final chance slip away when Rachel Brucks deflected a pass that Annie Wheeler secured and tossed down court as time expired.
The defensive stop locked up North's 16th win in its last 19 games, in addition to making sure Watkins would lose his mustache. He paid up before he left Wednesday night, shaving at Mill Creek and returning to the gym to show off his new look.
"I had to shave it, even though it's going to look awful," Watkins said. "Hopefully it will grow back by Friday."