Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett's Chris Bolden (25) comes down with a defensive rebound while covered by Norcross Derrick Herbert (22) during the first period of Tuesday's game. Bolden, who now plays for North Gwinnett, played for Norcross last season.
NORCROSS -- All eyes in the Norcross student section were understandably on former Blue Devils, and now North Gwinnett, guard Chris Bolden during Tuesday night's Region 7-AAAAA boys clash between the two schools.
Perhaps more eyes should have been on the rest of his Bulldogs teammates, especially A.J. Clements and Kwesi Abakah, who combined for 36 points as North built a big early lead en route to a 67-54 victory.
Despite being saddled with foul trouble much of the evening, Bolden was somewhat of a factor with nine points, seven rebounds and three steals.
But it was Clements, who scored 15 of his game-high 21 points in the first half, and Abakah, who had the bulk of his 15 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots in the second half, who set the tone for what was a total team effort as North (11-7, 6-1) pulled to within a half-game of Norcross (10-7, 7-1) in the region race.
"Everybody was all in," Bulldogs coach Zach Smith said. "(The Norcross students) were all up in him trying to take him out of his game, but he did a fantastic job of maintaining his composure. ... His teammates, the guys on the court, really stepped up. They played hard. They played to win."
Amid chants of "Traitor" and "Take his ring back," Bolden actually helped North get kick-started with the Bulldogs holding a one-point lead late in the first quarter.
The Georgia Tech-bound senior hit one of two free throws, and followed with a transition basket and an alley-oop slam from Tobias Howard to key a 10-0 run over the final 3:17 of the first quarter that pushed the North lead to 18-7.
And when Bolden headed to the bench with his second personal foul with 5:22 left in the first half, his teammates continued the momentum.
After Abakah's dunk off a feed from Clements made the score 18-9 in the first minute of the second quarter, Clements began to really take over.
The 6-foot-3 senior followed with a drive down the right wing, a transition layup and a pair of 3-pointer to lead a 14-5 run that left North with its biggest lead of the game at 32-14 following the latter of the two long-range bombs with 48 seconds left in the half.
And the Bulldogs were determined to keep its comfortable margin.
"Once you get a lead, you've got to maintain it," said Clements, who added four rebounds, three assists and three steals on the night. "We've got a little mentality in us now -- a winner's mentality. When you jump on them big, you've got to hold it."
But Norcross was just as determined to fight its way back into the game, as a Harold Givens stickback and a floater by Shamus Goss in the final 28 seconds of the half cut the North lead to 32-18 by halftime.
And the Blue Devils came out of intermission crashing the boards, with Givens following his own miss with a layup and Jason Croom adding a stickback to pull Norcross to within 10 at 32-22, prompting a quick timeout by North 44 seconds into the third quarter.
"All we needed was a timeout," Clements said. "Coach (Smith) pulled us over and calmed us down. I told our younger guards, 'We've just got to calm down and play ball.'"
The advice paid off as Abakah broke the Norcross run with a layup, followed by transition baskets by Bolden and Howard, to ignite an 8-3 run that pushed the North lead back to 15 points at 40-25 following a Clements pull-up jumper in the lane with 4:14 left in the quarter.
Twice more, Norcross would make runs and threaten to pull back into the game.
A 10-4 run over a 3:25 span late in the third quarter cut the North lead to 44-35, and the Blue Devils pulled as close as eight points at 46-38 following Croom's follow of his own miss 22 seconds into the fourth quarter.
But each time, North maintained its poise.
Reserve Danny Crawford drained a 3-pointer off a nifty feed from Kameron Calhoun, followed by a stickback by Abakah and four straight points from Howard as the Bulldogs built the lead back to double digits for good at 55-38 with 6:22 remaining.
It was too big a hill to climb for Norcross, which saw its six-game winning streak snapped despite 19 points and seven rebounds from guard Brandon Goodwin.
"I thought that we got outplayed in every phase of the game," Blue Devils coach Jesse McMillan said. "North Gwinnett won the ball game. We didn't lose it. They beat us."
"Every time we made a mini run, they hit shots. A.J. Clements probably had game of his career, guys coming off the bench making shots. That's a credit to them. They were ready to play. They were focused."
Calhoun (nine points, six rebounds), Howard (eight points) and Crawford (five points) also made big contributions to North's cause, while Givens (10 points, seven rebounds, four blocks) and Croom (nine points, 14 rebounds and a block) did their best to keep Norcross in the game.