Staff Photo: John Bohn Duluth's Katie Powell (34) battles for a rebound with Peachtree Ridge's Stephanie Amichia (32) during the third quarter of Wednesday's game. Duluth defeated Peachtree Ridge 56-40.
SUWANEE -- The Duluth and Mill Creek girls won their Region 7-AAAAA Basketball Tournament openers Wednesday night, getting the pressure game out of the way and setting up bigger challenges in Friday's semifinals.
Duluth took control late in the second quarter and kept host Peachtree Ridge chasing throughout in a 56-40 victory that clinched a state tournament berth. The Wildcats, who won their fourth straight, now play regular-season region champion North Gwinnett in the next round.
"I'm so super proud of them," Duluth girls coach Chad Pittman said. "It seems like this year we've had our ups and downs. ... Through those ups and downs, we've come together. Throughout the season, the team's a work in progress and the main thing is we've shown improvement at the end of the season."
Mill Creek locked up its state bid in the nightcap with a 55-40 victory over Collins Hill in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated. The Hawks also have a tough matchup in Friday's semifinals against two-time defending state champion Norcross, which got reigning Daily Post player of the year Diamond DeShields back in the lineup this week.
"This was a tough game mentally," Mill Creek girls coach Ashley Phillips said. "We were a little tight in the first half, but we did a good job at keeping the game at our pace and I think that made a big difference."
Before the Hawks clinched their state berth, fourth-seeded Duluth (17-9) took on No. 5 Peachtree Ridge (14-12) in an interesting matchup of teams that split during the regular season.
The Lions came in shorthanded after losing Mahrie Bowman to a season-ending knee injury last week, then saw talented sophomore Stephanie Amichia spend 16 minutes on the bench Wednesday with foul trouble. Amichia had five points and eight rebounds in the first quarter, but finished with just seven points and 14 boards because of the foul issues.
Meanwhile her teammates struggled to score against Duluth's stifling defense, making just 13 of 60 shots (21.7 percent).
Though Amichia sat out nearly six minutes to close the first half, the Lions were still down just five in the closing moments of the second quarter until a Duluth run upped the lead to 30-19 at halftime. The Wildcats then started the third quarter on a 7-2 run and Peachtree Ridge, which missed its first eight third-quarter shots, never threatened the lead again.
Duluth post Katie Powell led the victors with 18 points and 14 rebounds, doing most of her damage from 3-point range. She made 4 of 5 shots from outside the arc, and while she only blocked three shots, she altered many more in the lane.
Tajai Pearson had 13 points and eight rebounds for the Wildcats, Tajmah Muhammad had eight points off the bench and Aerial Carruthers added seven points, five rebounds and four assists.
Peachtree Ridge got eight points and eight rebounds from Lorrie Cruse, eight points from Melissa Turvy and seven points each from Taylor Cobb (who also grabbed 10 rebounds) and Gabby Cole.
"We did a good job of keeping them out of the paint and closing out on their shooters," Pittman said.
In the last girls game of the evening, third-seeded Mill Creek (18-8) got all it wanted from sixth-seeded Collins Hill (12-14).
The Eagles led 19-18 at halftime and were up four midway through the third quarter before India Dillard sparked an 8-0 run to end the period.
Dillard had 11 points and 14 rebounds.
The fourth quarter was all about Tamarr Williams, who scored a game-high 16 points. Each time Collins Hill got close -- within a point early in the quarter and within five at the midway point -- she answered with a 3-pointer.
The senior scored 11 of the Hawks' 25 fourth-quarter points and hit a trio of 3-pointers.
"(Williams) is never scared to take a big shot," Phillips said. "She's hit some big shots for us. ... She was definitely huge for us in the fourth quarter."
Jasmine Carter also had 14 points and eight rebounds for the Hawks.
Emily Buck led Collins Hill with 12 points and teammate Julianne Bayer had 10 points and 11 rebounds. Bayer scored five straight points midway through the fourth to close the gap to 41-36 before Williams' 3-pointer changed the momentum.