Staff Photo: John Bohn Norcross's Ricky Madison (25) seemingly heads the basketball during Friday's game against North Gwinnett. North Gwinett's Tobias Howard(14) reaches for the ball.
SUWANEE -- The chant from the Norcross student section towards former Blue Devil, now North Gwinnett, guard Chris Bolden was the same in Friday night's Region 7-AAAAA showdown between the two teams as it was when they met at Norcross last month.
"Take his ring back."
But even if the 6-foot-3 senior was to give back his Class AAAAA state championship ring from Norcross' title team a year ago, he could still enjoy being part of a championship team -- albeit on smaller lever, for now -- after North's 63-51 win Friday night.
Bolden scored 14 of his game-high 29 points in the second quarter to help North take the lead for good, and then added eight points during a 10-point run that helped blunt Norcross' (15-10, 11-3) fourth-quarter rally and give the Bulldogs (17-8, 12-2) their first regular season region title since 2003.
"I used the (Norcross) student section to fuel me -- to get me going," said Bolden, who added seven rebounds and three assists in his second game back against his old team after transferring from Norcross to North over the summer. "In the first half, I just found open spots in the zone, and I was able to knock down some key shots."
It took a while for both teams to get going offensively, with North holding just an 8-7 lead with just over two and a half minutes left in the first quarter before Bolden began to get revved up.
The Georgia Tech signee penetrated the lane before dishing out to Danny Crawford on the wing for a 3-pointer and then added a driving layup down the lane with 1:19 left in the first quarter to give the Bulldogs a 13-9 lead by the end of the period.
And Bolden continued that momentum in the second quarter by scoring eight points during a 10-3 run that pushed the North lead to double digits at 23-12 after his steal and coast-to-coast layup with a nifty move with 3:52 left in the first half.
The Bulldogs' lead reached as much as 32-17 after a three-point lead by freshman Tobias Howard with 1:06 left in the half.
But a transition layup by Derrick Herbert and a 35-foot, buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Brandon Goodwin sent Norcross into halftime down just 32-22.
The late run would be a theme most of the night for a Norcross team having to battle without injured big men Jason Croom (shoulder) and Harold Givens (elbow).
While 6-5 freshman Ricky Madison was able to hang tough, scoring eight points and pulling down seven rebounds on the night, the Blue Devils relied heavily on Goodwin (23 points) and Herbert (13 points, 12 rebounds) to pull themselves back into the game after trailing by as much as 15 in the third quarter, and still being down 48-35 after Kwesi Abakah's layup with 6:51 left to play.
Herbert's driving layup from the right wing and two straight baskets from Goodwin ignited a 6-0 run that pulled Norcross as close as it had been since early in the second quarter at 48-41 following Goodwin's drive down the lane with 3:53 remaining.
"We just talked about being mentally tough," Norcross coach Jesse McMillan said. "We knew there were a lot of challenges going into the game. ... We just asked them to play as hard as they could and not give up."
But with the Blue Devils threatening to rally, Bolden quickly restored order for North.
He answered Goodwin's driving layup with one of his own and adding two more layups and two free throws to spark a 10-0 run over the next 2:04 as the Bulldogs pushed the lead back to double digits for good at 58-41.
Tobias Howard, who had eight points and seven assists, then applied the finishing touches with a three-point play with 43.7 seconds left, and the celebration was on.
But North coach Zach Smith, whose team also got a boost Friday from Kameron Calhoun's 12 points and six rebounds and Abakah's 10 boards and two blocked shots, looked at the regular season title as a beginning, rather than an end.
"Everything that's happened up to this point is out the window," Smith said. "It's nice to win a regular season championship, and we'll enjoy it (Friday) night. But we've got to replicate that region success in the postseason now."