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North girls return to Final Four by beating Alpharetta

Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett's Baylee Rexing (5) and teammate Lexie Brown (4) celebrate a 55-41 win over Alpharetta in a Class AAAAAA girls basketball state tournament quarterfinal game played at North Gwinnett on Tuesday.

Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett's Baylee Rexing (5) and teammate Lexie Brown (4) celebrate a 55-41 win over Alpharetta in a Class AAAAAA girls basketball state tournament quarterfinal game played at North Gwinnett on Tuesday.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett's Lexi Brown (4) shoots while guarded by Alpharetta players Nicole King (42) and Lauren Brown (10) during the second period of a Class AAAAAA girls basketball state tournament quarterfinal game played at North Gwinnett on Tuesday.

SUWANEE -- After making the state semifinals for the first time in nearly 40 years last season, the North Gwinnett girls are headed back.

This time, the Bulldogs don't plan to stop there.

"We have bigger goals," standout guard Lexie Brown said.

North -- shooting for its first state championship -- will play either North Cobb or Tift County on Saturday at Georgia Tech's new McCamish Pavilion after getting past visiting Alpharetta in the Class AAAAAA quarterfinals.

Brown had 12 of her 17 points in the second half and fellow senior Peyton Whitted had a double-double Tuesday night as Region 7 champ North (28-1) rolled to a 55-41 victory over Region 6 winner Alpharetta (26-5).

The Bulldogs celebrated wildly after beating Mill Creek last season to advance to the semifinals for the first time since 1963. This time, everyone took their second victory of the season against Alpharetta in stride.

"It's an accomplishment obviously to make the semifinals back-to-back, but reaching the Final Four again was never our goal," North coach Bryan Sellars said. "They want to win that state championship. They're not going to be satisfied with anything less."

North lost 56-51 to eventual state runner-up Hillgrove last year and the school is 0-3 in the state semifinals, although the first two losses are ancient history.

Now, the Bulldogs will have to wait until late today to find out who they play on Saturday. North Cobb and Tift County don't play until tonight in Tifton.

But North is confident no matter the semifinal opponent.

"We're a lot better team than last year," said Penn State signee Whitted, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds.

"Not to take anything away from last year's team, but I think we are better all the way across the board," Sellers said. "Our returning players have more experience and we've had some good additions."

North defeated Alpharetta despite a less-than-impressive shooting night. The Bulldogs shot 39 percent and were just 5-for-16 on 3-pointers.

But Stephanie Amichia, a 6-foot-2 transfer from Peachtree Ridge had a game-best 13 rebounds and fellow junior Joshlyn Belcher, who played on two Class A state championship teams at Wesleyan, had four assists to go with her eight points.

"Last year, we were jittery because it was the school's first time in the Final Four in a long time," said Maryland signee Brown, who had five assists. "This time we know what to expect and everyone will be ready. We all have confidence in each other."

Down by 13 points midway in the third quarter, got within 34-26 to start in final period. But Brown hit her third 3-pointer of the game and Whitted scored two straight baskets inside as the Bulldogs quickly went up by 15 points.

Alpharetta could never get closer than 10 points after that as North finished the game 14 of 19 from the foul line.

Baylee Rexing was 5-for-5 and finished with seven points to go with four assists.

Kylee Smith scored 13 points -- seven in the third quarter -- to lead Alpharetta. Lauren Brown, the Raiders' only other senior, scored 12.

Beaten by North 76-50 at home on Jan. 12, Alpharetta played at a slower pace this time in the first half in an attempt to keep the score down.

But North led 11-5 at the end of the first quarter with the 6-foot-3 Whitted scoring six points and was up by as many as 11 points in the second quarter thanks to a pair of 3-pointers by Belcher before going into intermission with a 22-13 advantage.

The second half featured more up-and-down play, but not much else changed as North maintained control. Now, it is off to Georgia Tech for the semifinals.

"It will be exciting to play there," said Brown, who also will get the chance as a future visitor with Maryland. "It's like a big arena, with the stands dark and the court real bright."

Whitted has also been to McCamish Pavilion as a spectator. But now she, Brownand their teammates will be the center of attention.

"We'll be ready," she said. "We know we have two more steps to go. Our goal all season has been to win the state championship."

"It's different from last year," Brown said. "This year we're the favorites."