NORCROSS -- The last Region 7-AAAAA Tournament semifinal Friday night ended fittingly -- with a defensive stop.
Jalen Bracey's 3-point attempt at the buzzer rimmed out and the top-seeded North Gwinnett boys basketball team edged fourth-seeded Mill Creek 34-33 in a defensive battle that saw both teams struggle to put up points. The Bulldogs survived to earn a spot in Saturday's 6 p.m. final against Peachtree Ridge, which used a big third quarter to defeat Norcross 68-56 in Friday's first semifinal.
"What an unreal rivalry, first of all," North boys coach Zach Smith said. "(Mill Creek coach) Chad (Rogers) and his staff do an amazing job. Their kids play so hard and so focused on defense. I knew we had to do the same on defense.
"I know I'm a young coach, but that's as good as a defensive battle as I've seen in high school basketball. And that's two teams with a lot of offensive firepower, too."
North (19-8) led 21-13 at halftime, but Mill Creek (20-7) got back into it by holding the Bulldogs to four third-quarter points.
The teams stayed within a basket most of the fourth quarter, though North held a few four-point leads until the Hawks' Trevon Shaw hit a 3-pointer with 43.7 seconds left to cut the gap to 33-32. A single free throw by North's Tobias Howard pushed the lead to 34-32 and the Bulldogs had fouls to give, but when they did foul, the referees called an intentional foul with 8.5 seconds left.
Bracey, who had a game-high six assists, made the first free throw, but missed the potentially tying second one. But Mill Creek still had possession, but didn't get a good look as the inbounds pass was tipped away near midcourt. Bracey regained control and got a decent look at his 3-pointer, but it bounced off the front iron.
"I'm proud of the way my guys played on defense," Smith said. "(Mill Creek's) as good of a defense team as there is in the state. But we battled and found a way to win."
Mill Creek's Paul Evans, who fouled out with 15.1 seconds left and wasn't available as an option for the final shot, was the game's only double-figure scorer with 10. Daniel Loudermilk and Shaw each scored nine points, but Shaw's best work was on the defensive end.
The Mill Creek junior hounded North star Chris Bolden, who had 29 and 30 points in his last two outings, all game long. Bolden, a Georgia Tech signee, scored just eight points, which led North.
Kwesi Abakah had a game-high 15 rebounds for the North, the regular-season region champion.
Another rival is up next for the Bulldogs.
Peachtree Ridge (18-9) trailed by a point at halftime in the opening semifinal, then took control in the third quarter. Benny Johnson (11 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) scored the first six points of the third to spark the Lions, who outscored the injury-plagued Blue Devils (16-11) 21-5 in the quarter.
Norcross' Brandon Goodwin scored a game-high 23 points, but scored just seven points in the second half and was held without a field goal in the final two quarters with solid defense by Edwin Efezokhae and Cole Rives.
"I just thought we came out with a lot more intensity (in the third quarter)," Peachtree Ridge boys coach Keith Arrington said. "We got out and got some easy buckets. We're not good enough to slow it down. We've got to run."
Jordan Capps had 15 points and six rebounds for the Lions, Brandon Jack had 14 points and eight rebounds, Cole Romaguera had eight points, six rebounds and four assists and Amir Warnock added six points and five rebounds off the bench.
Norcross, last year's Class AAAAA state champion, also got solid games from Myles Autry (12 points, 11 rebounds) and Ricky Madison (eight points, six rebounds).