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Brown, Johnson, Whitted help North punch ticket for quarters in 60-55 win

WOODSTOCK -- After being upset in the second round of the Class AAAAA state tournament last season, the No. 4 state-ranked North Gwinnett girls got an ominous sign hours before this year's second-round game against Woodstock.

"The bus was about 40 minutes late for us to get down here," Bulldogs coach Bryan Sellers said. "It was a very stressful time for us."

And the host and ninth-ranked Wolverines gave North even more stress with a spirited effort, but Lexie Brown, Ariel Johnson and Peyton Whitted weren't about to let the Bulldogs miss the bus in the second round again.

The backcourt duo of Brown and Johnson each struck for 20 points, including combining for 14 of their team's 19 points in the fourth quarter to help North hold on for a 60-55 victory Tuesday night at Woodstock.

Brown also had 11 rebounds, seven assists and two steals, while Whitted posted a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds as the Bulldogs (25-3) earned their first trip to a state quarterfinal since they did it in Class AAA in 2000.

"I'm very humbled for what our girls have done and where we're at," said Sellers, whose Bulldogs will take on Region 7-AAAAA rival Mill Creek in Saturday's 7 p.m. quarterfinal at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. "We're thankful for where we're at, and we don't forget where we're coming from."

Where the Bulldogs were coming from was a deficit much of Tuesday after initially taking a 12-5 lead with 3:47 left in the first quarter.

Led by the hot 3-point shooting of McKenzie Fortson, who hit two of her three shots from behind the arc in the first quarter as part of her 12 points on the evening, the Wolverines (21-9) roared back with a 14-3 run over the final 3:32 of the period to take a 19-15 lead.

Another big run -- this time a 9-2 run over the final 3:56 of the second quarter, keyed by another 3-pointer by Fortson and two baskets by Clara Young -- gave Woodstock a 32-27 lead by intermission.

But Brown and Johnson were determined that the Bulldogs would not suffer the same fate they did last year at Roswell in the second round, when they were overwhelmed in the fourth quarter and fell by three points.

"I just knew that there was a different drive that we've had since we lost in this round last year," Brown said. "We just had to keep our composure. ... We got down, and I couldn't really find my groove throughout the whole game, but then Ariel and Peyton stepped up big."

Indeed, Johnson and Whitted came up big while Woodstock was trying to keep Brown from the ball in the third quarter.

The pair combined for 10 third-quarter points to give North as much as a five-point lead, but key driving baskets in the lane by Young, Fortson and GiGi Asberry kept the Wolverines within striking distance at 41-39 heading into the fourth quarter.

And similar drives by Makensie Block, who scored 11 of her team-high 18 points in the fourth quarter, helped give Woodstock the lead again at 46-45 with 6:01 remaining.

But with the game tied at 47, North's terrific trio went to work.

First, Brown drove the lane and drew three defenders to her before dishing into the right corner to Johnson, who buried a 3-pointer to give the Bulldogs the lead for good at 50-47 with 4:43 left.

Then, after Woodstock pulled to within 54-53 after Block's steal and coast-to-coast layup with 2:17 remaining, Whitted and Johnson came up with perhaps the play of the game.

The 6-foot-3 Whitted deflected the ball away from Brianna Lakes in the high post and came up with the loose ball to lead a fast break, which she finished by dishing off to Johnson for the layup to extend the Bulldogs' lead to 56-53 with 1:33 left.

Brown then hit four clutch free throws in the final minutes, the last two with 14 seconds left, before corralling a rebound on a Fortson 3-point attempt in the waning seconds to seal the win for North.