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North Gwinnett girls halfway to goal

ATLANTA -- It is two down and two to go for the North Gwinnett girls.

"We set our goal at four and we're halfway there," coach Bryan Sellers said as the Bulldogs celebrated their second Christmas tournament championship.

"Now we have a region championship and a state championship left," said North Gwinnett standout Lexie Brown.

Brown made two free throws with seven seconds left and the Bulldogs (9-1) edged previously unbeaten Thomasville Prep of North Carolina 51-49 on Thursday in the Green Division championship game of the JumpOffPlus.com Holiday Invitational at Holy Innocents'.

Brown, a junior guard who has committed to Maryland, finished with 17 points, six rebounds and five assists. Seven of her points came in the fourth quarter, including a long 3-pointer that gave the Bulldogs a lead with 1:10 left.

That was North's ninth 3-pointer of the game, including four by Ariel Johnson.

"We like to shoot 3s," Sellers said. "They are worth more than 2s. If a player is open, we want her to shoot it."

Thomasville hit six 3-pointers, including a tying shot with 13 seconds remaining. But the Phoenix missed at the buzzer in an attempt to force overtime.

"I'm a lot more comfortable shooting 3-pointers than free throws," said Brown, who connected three times from behind the arc.

Her tie-breaking foul shot caught plenty of iron, but the second swished through. Then the celebration began when Thomasville's final shot bounced off the rim.

By moving its Jared Cook Holiday Classic to before Christmas, North had the opportunity to compete in two tourneys during the school break for the first time and made the most of the opportunity.

"It's great to win a tournament title like this one," Sellers said. "Lexie and Ariel played very well, and so did Peyton Whitted."

Whitted hit a big 3-pointer in the late going after North fell down by four points and finished with 10 points. Johnson had 16 points and a game-best seven assists.

Yani Coyunen scored 14 points to lead Thomasville (18-1). Kristina King and Jatzmin Johnson added 10 points each.

The game was tied at 12 after a quarter, and North led 23-21 at halftime and 36-33 going into the final quarter. The teams weren't separated by more than five points during the game, with North holding the biggest lead at 19-14 in the second quarter.

North's only loss this season was 48-46 against St. Pius, ranked No. 2 in Class AAA, on Dec. 3. The Bulldogs went into the break ranked No. 8 in Class AAAAA, but that is likely to improve in the next coaches poll. North wasn't challenged in the Jared Cook Holiday Classic, winning all three games easily. But there was plenty of top competition in the JumpOffPlus.com event and it leaves the team battle tested for Region 8-AAAAA play.

The Bulldogs beat Norcross twice in the regular season last year, but lost to the two-time defending state champions for the region tournament title.

"We have our goal this year and we are determined to make it happen," Brown said.