Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett players Alyssa Munlyn (12), Austin McCausland (22), Jordan Goldring (11) and Gretja Otten (14) watch the final moments pass during a loss to Hillgrove in a girls Class AAAAA state basketball semifinal game played Thursday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. Hillgrove defeated North Gwinnett 56-51.
North Gwinnett VS Hillgrove
North Gwinnett played Hillgrove in the Class AAAAA state semifinal game at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
DULUTH -- Both North Gwinnett and Hillgrove turned to their point guards and floor leaders in the fourth quarter of their Class AAAAA state girls semifinal clash.
And while Lexie Brown did her part for North, the No. 3 state-ranked Bulldogs just couldn't find a way to keep the ball away from Celina Rodrigo.
The 5-foot-6 senior scored 15 of her 18 points in the final frame and posted a triple double to help the seventh-ranked Hawks erase a five-point deficit after three quarters and end the Bulldogs' championship dream with a 56-51 win Thursday at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.
The loss cut short North's first trip to the Final Four since 1963 despite a big night from both Brown and Peyton Whitted.
Brown, a junior already committed to Maryland, poured in a game-high 25 points, 13 of which came in the fourth quarter, while Whitted finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
"She's good," North coach Bryan Sellars said of Rodrigo. "We tried to keep her out of the lane, but she kept getting it in there. And she made some good foul shots down the stretch. We just couldn't make it happen (Thursday) night."
But Rodrigo, who had 10 rebounds and 10 assists to go with her scoring, and the Hawks (26-4) found a way to make it happen to send veteran coach Sheryl Fowler into the championship game for just the second time in her successful 30-year career, where Powder Springs rival McEachern -- a 64-61 winner over two-time defending champion Norcross earlier in the day -- awaits.
"I've been to the Final Four four times. We lost in double overtime once and overtime twice. So, this one feels good," said Fowler, who took Campbell High in Smyrna to the title game back in 1984. "This is great for the school ... and playing McEachern is great for the community of Power Springs as a whole. I really appreciate that.
"(Rodrigo) is just a player. She refuses to lose. She works hard and does what it takes to put points on the board when we have to and get assists when she has to. She's a great team leader."
It was Whitted who was the Bulldogs' team leader after they fell behind early thanks to MacKenzie Engram's nine first-quarter points -- part of a team-high 20-point effort for the 6-1 sophomore.
The 6-3 junior Whitted scored the last of her 10 first-quarter points with a stickback with 1:13 left to pull North to within 17-12 by the end of the period, and Brown began to heat up as momentum started to shift in the second quarter.
The Maryland-committed junior knocked down a 3-pointer 58 seconds in, staring a run of eight points for her in the period.
Meanwhile, Whitted added another 3-pointer at the 4:19 mark to cap an 8-1 run that vaulted the Bulldogs into their first lead of the game at 20-18.
The lead was 27-25 by halftime behind 15 points from Whitted, and reached as much as 36-27 after Brown ended a 9-2 run with a driving layup down the lane with 2:50 to go in the third quater.
But Rodrigo fed Engram for a turnaround jumper and Maurissa Lester for a layup over the final 2:30 of the period to pull Hillgrove to within 36-31 heading into the fourth quarter.
And the Wake Forest signee was only getting warmed up, setting up another basket from Engram and adding her only two field goals of the game in a 49-second span during an 8-1 run over the opening 2:53 of the fourth quarter to vault the Hawks in front 39-37 with 5:07 left to play.
But Brown wasn't about to let North go down without a fight.
The 5-9 junior answered with a long 3-pointer from the left wing to put the Bulldogs back in front at 40-39, but that lead lasted only 16 seconds as Rodrigo got to the foul line and hit both free throws to vault the Hawks back into the lead at 41-40 with 4:14.
It would be a recurring theme as time wound down.
Rodrigo kept finding the ball and getting fouled and making most of her free throws -- 11 of 14 in the fourth quarter -- while Brown tried to keep pace.
Twice, Brown was able to pull the Bulldogs as close as one point -- first at 43-42 with her coast-to-coast layup with 1:19 left and then at 50-49 with a 3-pointer with 37 seconds remaining.
But Rodrigo and Lester combined to hit six straight free throws in the final 31.8 seconds, and Meredith Heyer and Engram came up with big steals with North down three points to help the Hawks hold onto the lead.
"There are a lot of positives," Sellers said of the Bulldogs' session. "We've got a lot of girls coming back, and we've got a lot to build on."
Besides the big night from Brown and Whitted, North also got important contributions from senior Ariel Johnson, who had a team-high three assists, and sophomore Baylee Rexing, who had a game-high five steals.