Photo: Craig Cappy North Gwinnett's Lexi Brown (4) shoots over Archer's Morgan Jackson (33) during Friday's Class AAAAAA state playoff game.
SUWANEE -- It took nearly a half for North Gwinnett's girls to find their rhythm in their second-round Class AAAAAA state tournament matchup with Archer.
But hot shooting from the perimeter and tough defense sparked a late first-half run that gave the Bulldogs enough momentum to pull away in the third quarter for a 66-42 win Friday at home.
North bombed away from 3-point range, hitting 11 of 27 (40.7 percent) from behind the arc, including five from Joshlyn Belcher on her way to a 17-point night.
"We were able to find the open girl in the flow of the offense," North coach Bryan Sellers said. "That's one thing we talked about. If we catch the ball ready to shoot, we're going to find some open looks."
But it was Lexie Brown who was perhaps the biggest catalyst by posting a game-high 23 points, plus five rebounds, six assists and two steals as the Bulldogs (26-1) advanced to next week's state quarterfinals, where they await the winner of tonight's game between Central Gwinnett and Alpharetta.
"I think we just started hitting some shots and getting some stops on defense," Brown said. "Coach Sellers told us (in the first half) that we were looking a little stagnant. So, I felt like we needed to pick it up. Once a couple of us hit shots, we kind of all just got each other going."
The 5-foot-10 guard was also strong on the other end of the court, with the tough task of battling Archer's sophomore Madison Newby.
And while the county's fourth-leading scorer had just three of her 19 points in the first half on a half-court buzzer-beater at the end of the first quarter, she found other ways to stay involved most of the half, dishing out three assists and coming up with three steals defensively to help Archer (20-10) hang around.
The Tigers cut what had been as much as a 12-point North lead, built around eight first-quarter points from Belcher, down to 24-17 when Morgan Jackson connected for two of her nine first-half points on a layup with 4:19 left in the half.
But Brown and North began to pick up the pace of the game.
The Maryland-bound senior knocked down shots on three straight North possessions inside the final three minutes -- including two 3-pointers -- push the lead back into double digits.
And with the clock winding down, Brown passed the ball to the left wing to Peyton Whitted, who passed up the shot and found a wide-open Baylee Rexing in the corner for a 3-pointer at the buzzer that sent the Bulldogs into intermission with a comfortable 40-22 lead.
"That was a huge boost," Brown said of Rexing's buzzer-beater. "Coach Sellers told us coming out of a (late first-half) timeout that we wanted the play to come for me. ... When (the defense) ran toward me, so I had to find the open girl. And that's Baylee's shot. She's always going to hit that for us."
North's momentum carried over into the second half, where Brown opened and closed an 8-0 run over the first 3:26 of the third quarter as the Bulldogs built as much as a 63-30 lead by the end of the period.
But Archer kept battling as Newby -- who had all eight of her team's points in the third quarter and added eight more in the fourth -- hit all five of her 3-pointers in the second half to help the Tigers outscore North 12-3 in the shortened fourth quarter.
Add to that an 11-point, seven-rebound night from Jackson, plus continued intensity from the rest of the team, and the Tigers earned plenty of admiration from coach Ryan Lesniak.
"It's always taxing on your team when the other team is that hot (as North was)," Lesniak said. "But I was proud of our kids. We did not quit at any point in time. We fought to the buzzer."
While Brown and Belcher did much of the damage offensively, North also got a strong night from Whitted, who posted a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, while Stephanie Amichia added nine points and nine boards and Rexing finished with six points, four assists and three steals.