Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett's Kwesi Abakah (12) works for the ball against Milton's Tevin Glass (40) during the third quarter of a state Class AAAAA quarter final boys basketball game played Saturday at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.
CARROLLTON -- The ejection of one of the key figures from top-ranked Milton from Saturday's Class AAAAA state quarterfinal with North Gwinnett figured to be a game changer.
And it was, but not in the way the eighth-ranked Bulldogs thought or hoped it would.
With starting Charles Mann gone after picking up his second technical foul of the game, Evan Nolte and Shaquille Johnson erupted for 11 third-quarter points as the Eagles turned what had been a four-point game into a rout en route to a 80-58 victory at The Coliseum at the University of West Georgia.
The win ended North's season at 21-10 despite a heroic effort from Chris Bolden, who scored 27 points to lead the Bulldogs, and put Milton into the Final Four for the fourth straight season.
But the Eagles (26-4) will have to play without the Georgia-bound Mann, who was ejected after picking up his second technical of the game following a dunk on a fastbreak that had given Milton a 42-35 lead with 5:26 left in third quarter.
"I was proud of the way we responded," said Milton coach David Boyd, who guided Berkmar to back-to-back state titles in 2000 and 2001."Everyone stepped up and played a little harder. Basketball is a team game. But to have a player ejected for that just isn't right."
The absence of Mann, who had 10 points and six assists when he was ejected, opened an opportunity for North, and the Bulldogs looked like they would take advantage after A.J. Clements hit one of the two technical shots, and pulled as close as two points twice -- the last at 44-40 on Chris Bolden's baseline drive and layup with 3:31 left in the quarter.
However, Milton rallied behind their two other players to already sign with Division I college programs.
After Mann's replacement, Evan Coleman, extended the lead to 46-40 with a baseline drive of his own with 3:07 left in the quarter, Auburn signee Johnson fed former Meadowcreek standout Tevin Glass for an alley-oop slam on Milton's next trip down the court.
That started a sequence in which he and Virginia signee Nolte alternated scoring on Milton's next four possessions over the final 2:06 of the quarter.
When the dust settled, Milton had reeled off 17 straight points and had ballooned its lead to 57-40.
Bolden tried to keep his team in the game, scoring eight points over the opening 3:28 of the fourth quarter.
But with Milton matching the Georgia Tech-bound senior, the Eagles actually increased their lead to 67-48 after two more Johnson free throws with 3:48 remaining.
Bolden fouled out 19 seconds later, and the Eagles cruised home behind Nolte, who finished with a game-high 30 points, Johnson, who added 10 points, seven rebounds, six assists and three steals, and Glass, who had 18 points and five boards.
Freshman Tobias Howard had a strong game to join Bolden in double figures with 12 points, and pulled down a team-high seven rebounds.
It looked like Milton would run away and hide early in an emotionally-charged first half that featured 16 combined fouls, including a double-technical against Mann and North freshman Kameron Calhoun.
Mann responded by scoring three points and dishing out two assists during a 12-6 run over the final 3:07 of the first quarter that left Milton with a 20-10 lead.
But Bolden and the Bulldogs began to heat up from the outside.
The 6-2 Georgia Tech signee began bombing away from long range, hitting a trio of NBA-distance 3-pointers over he opening 2:03 of the second quarter, while teammates Howard and Danny Crawford also connected from long range in the period.
And when A.J. Clements cleaned up a missed shot with a stickback, North had reeled off a 10-4 run that cut the Milton lead to 29-27 with 3:16 left in the half
But Mann led a 7-2 run over the rest of the half, including driving in from the left wing for a layup that sent the Eagles into the locker room with a 35-29 lead.