Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan North Gwinnett's junior Lexie Brown (4) gets closed-lined by Duluth's sophomore Katie Powell (34) during region 7-AAAAA high school girls basketball action between North Gwinnett and Duluth at Meadowcreek High School on Friday. North Gwinnett defeated Duluth 55-51.
NORCROSS -- The rematch is set, this time with Diamond DeShields on the basketball court instead of the bench.
The Norcross junior, out with a broken left wrist, could only watch in frustration as her teammates took a lopsided loss to rival North Gwinnett at the end of the regular season. In today's Region 7-AAAAA Tournament finals at Meadowcreek, she will play a much bigger role.
DeShields, in just her second game back, got the fourth-ranked Blue Devils into Saturday's 4:30 p.m. title game with a 31-point, 13-rebound effort Friday night in a 61-44 victory over Mill Creek. They will meet North Gwinnett, ranked third in Class AAAAA, after the Bulldogs narrowly escaped Duluth 55-51 in Friday's other girls semifinal.
"Nobody wants to get whipped by a team and not get a second chance to play them," DeShields said. "My best friend Lexie Brown plays for North so I always look forward to playing North."
DeShields' broken wrist still hasn't fully healed, so her bag is full of casts and braces that she wears at various times during the day. She held the sore wrist gingerly following the game, but refuses to let it keep her off the court as Norcross seeks its third state title in as many seasons.
While she had 10 points and favored her right hand strongly in her first game back, DeShields looked much more comfortable against Mill Creek.
"I'm not going to complain about (the wrist)," DeShields said. "I'm just playing through it. ... You just don't let it get to you and play through it. I'm trying to lead my team to championships."
Mill Creek (18-9), despite playing without starting point guard Sierra Menzies, gave the Blue Devils (22-5) a close game for three quarters. Menzies missed the game because of a scholarship interview at Georgia Tech that couldn't be rescheduled.
The Hawks led after a quarter thanks to Kathleen Haxton, who scored eight of her team's 12 first-quarter points. Haxton finished with a team-high 10 points.
Norcross finally pulled away in the fourth quarter behind Shayla Cooper (12 points, seven rebounds) and DeShields. Tori Carter (11 points, eight rebounds) also was solid throughout the win.
Mill Creek also got nine points from Nadiya Miller, eight points and seven rebounds from Jasmine Carter and 10 rebounds from Tamarr Williams.
"We're struggling to put all the parts back together because we've had so many injuries," Norcross girls coach Angie Hembree said. "I'm very proud of how hard they played. The shots weren't falling at times, but they kept playing hard."
Hembree knows her team will need a much better effort against North.
The Bulldogs (23-2) led at halftime against Duluth, only to watch the Wildcats (17-10) respond with a big third quarter. Duluth made 7 of 12 shots in the third and led 38-37 going into the fourth quarter.
The fourth seed's last lead disappeared with less than two minutes left in the game, when Brown delivered a pair of big plays, the first a go-ahead layup with 1:41 remaining. The junior guard then stole the inbound pass and put the Bulldogs up 49-46.
That lead held thanks to clutch free-throw shooting by Brown and Baylee Rexing, who finished Duluth off with two free throws with 14 seconds remaining.
"We just found a way to win," North girls coach Bryan Sellers said. "We've had several games recently that have been close and we've found a way to win. But give credit to (Duluth coach) Chad (Pittman) and Duluth. They came out and played a heck of a game."
Brown had 11 of her game-high 26 points in the fourth-quarter comeback and Rexing had all five of her points in the fourth, including a big 3-pointer early in the quarter. North also got 10 points and 12 rebounds from Peyton Whitted and 10 points from Aeriel Johnson.
Katie Powell led Duluth with 18 points and five rebounds. The Wildcats also got 10 points from Aerial Carruthers, eight points from Joi Jones and seven points and 10 rebounds from Tajai Pearson.