Photo: David McGregor
North Gwinnett's A.J. Clements drives past a fallen Saah Nimley of Collins Hill during the second half of the Bulldogs' victory over the Eagles in 7-AAAAA region play Friday night.
SUWANEE — North Gwinnett knew it would have a big size advantage against smaller Collins Hill in the low block in Friday night’s game matchup up of two of the three co-leaders in Region 7-AAAAA.
Sure enough, Bulldogs big men Ryon Riggins and Kwesi Abakah each had a huge night.
However, the North guards played just as big a role as the No. 8 state-ranked Bulldogs used a third-quarter surge to run past the visiting fourth-ranked Eagles 75-61 and maintain their share of the region lead.
All five North (15-4, 7-2) starters finished with double-figure scoring, but it was tandem of senior Clayton Williams and junior A.J. Clements who keyed the decisive run over the third quarter as the Bulldogs remained tied with No. 6 Peachtree Ridge atop the region standings.
“We know they (Collins Hill) are a transition team, and they like to get out and run and get easy baskets on the fastbreak,” said Williams, who finished with a game-high 18 points, plus six assists and three steals. “And we knew we had to lock down on them defensively in order to win the second half, and ultimately, the game.”
The strong perimeter defense and steady ball handling of Williams, Clements (14 points) and senior wing Cyrus Lavant (16 points, five rebounds and five assists) was particularly timely after Collins Hill (14-5, 6-3) went toe-to-toe with the Bulldogs throughout the first two and a half quarters.
Leading by a pair after one quarter after Saah Nimley’s three-quarter-court heave at the buzzer and trailing just 30-28 at the half, the Eagles were more than holding own, especially after Ailen Idiake’s layup with 4:03 left in the third quarter left them with a 35-33 lead.
But from there, the North guards began to go to work, either getting penetration in the lane — as Clements did on his give-and-go drive with Abakah to tie the game at 35-all — or knocking down the open perimeter shot — as Williams did on the next possession to put North up for good at 38-35 with 2:43 left in the quarter.
Mostly, it was what the guards didn’t do that proved to be the key as the Bulldogs outscored Collins Hill 14-5 over the final 3:31 of the period.
They didn’t turn the ball over at all.
“We were able to get dribble penetration, and we had only four turnovers in the first half,” North coach Zach Smith said. “We were able to minimize (Collins Hill’s) easy buckets. We did a good job taking care of the basketball. That was the difference.”
The Bulldogs only committed 14 miscues on the entire evening, most in the fourth quarter after Collins Hill tried to claw its way back after falling behind by as much as 52-42 following Abakah’s layup with 4:57 to play.
The Eagles managed to pull as close as four points twice, the last at 58-54 following Herdie Lawrence’s driving layup with 2:39 left.
But coach Josh Grayson’s said his team’s fate was already sealed long before North connected on 10 of 12 free throws in the final 1:58 to put the game away.
“Midway through the third quarter until the first few minutes of the fourth, not much was going right,” Grayson said. “The first half, we actually played pretty well even though we were in foul trouble. But ... we just made some bad decisions (in the second half). ... We didn’t deserve to win (Friday) night.”
North was quite deserving as the Bulldog guards got plenty of help from 6-foot-8 Abakah (14 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots) and 6-9 Ryon Riggins (13 points, 16 boards, three blocks), each of whom dominated the glass and ran the floor well to finish with a double-double.
Nimley shook off early foul trouble to lead Collins Hill with 17 points, while Lawrence had a strong all-around game with 10 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and three steals.
J.C. Bonny also reached double figures for the Eagles with 13 points, while the 6-4 Idiake battled against the bigger Bulldog posts to finish with six points and a team-high 10 rebounds.