Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett players Lexi Brown (4), Alexis Munlyn (20), Baylee Rexing (5), Jordan Hyatt (30) and Peyton Whitted (25) celebrate defeating Mill Creek in a state Class AAAAA quarter final girls basketball game played Saturday at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. North Gwinnett defeated Mill Creek 68-43.
CARROLLTON -- The Mill Creek girls made a stirring run to the Class AAAAA Final Four last season as a No. 3 seed, but the Hawks didn't have to face a fellow member of rugged Region 7 along the way.
This time Mill Creek did and it is No. 4-ranked North Gwinnett who will join two-time defending state champion Norcross in the state semifinals.
Ariel Johnson scored 20 points, Peyton Whitted added 19 and Lexie Brown had a triple-double with 12 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists as the hot-shooting Bulldogs rolled to a 68-43 victory Saturday at West Georgia. North Gwinnett (26-3) will play No. 7-ranked Hillgrove (25-4) on Thursday in the Arena at Gwinnett Center as it makes its first trip to the Final Four since 1963 and just the third in school history.
"We went to the Arena to watch last year and we said that we've got to get there ourselves," Brown said. "It will be a lot of fun."
The Bulldogs were upset in the second round last year, Roswell edging them. When Mill Creek, a team they had beaten three times, got to the Final Four instead, it hurt even more.
"What happened last year gave us motivation," said Johnson, one of the team's two senior starters. "That's why this feels so good."
"Since we lost last season, our goal has been to win the last game we play," coach Bryan Sellers said. "Now we have two games to go."
North Gwinnett hit five of its first six shots, including a trio of 3-pointers, to go up 16-5 and things didn't get any better for Mill Creek (21-10) as the Bulldogs could hardly miss in the first half.
Johnson finished 4 of 6 from behind the 3-point arc and 8 of 11 overall as Brown kept getting the ball to her red-hot backcourt mate.
Asked if it was the hottest she had ever been in a game, Johnson said, "Definitely."
"She couldn't miss," said Brown, a junior who has committed to Maryland.
Johnson hit four 3-pointers before halftime while Brown and Whitted had one each as North Gwinnett expanded a 21-10 lead after the first quarter to 39-20 at halftime.
Johnson had nine points in each of the first two quarters. Whitted had 11 first-half points, with eight coming in the first quarter.
North Gwinnett led 53-31 going into the fourth quarter and the Bulldog starters took turns coming to the bench to a standing ovation from North Gwinnett rooters as reserves finished off the victory.
Nadiya Miller was the only double-figure scorer for Mill Creek with 11 points. Jasmine Carter, the Hawks' talented sophomore, scored five.
Sellers, North Gwinnett's second-year coach, had a plea for his team before the game and the players responded.
"We challenged them to play their best game and they did," Sellers said. "I couldn't be more proud of them."
When North Gwinnett last reached the semifinals 49 years ago, the school was nothing like it is today and neither was girls basketball.
Girls played with rovers to keep players from having to run so much and making the three-round Class B semifinals meant winning just one state tournament game.
The Bulldogs reached the semifinals in 1961 and 1963, but that is where the season ended each time.
Now North Gwinnett is one victory from school history and two victories from a first state championship.