HOSCHTON --Joi Jones clutched the basketball as time expired, relishing the victory and finally cracking a smile.
The Duluth senior showed the damage of an intense battle with Mill Creek --a bloody cut on her right knee that forced her to leave multiple times for a re-wrapping --but the reward was well worth the fight.
The visiting Wildcats held Mill Creek scoreless for the game's final 4 minutes and 27 seconds, gutting out a 67-57 win and edging into a third-place tie with Region 7-AAAAAA powerhouses North Gwinnett and Norcross.
"It was frustrating (to keep leaving the game)," said Jones, who scored 19 despite the breaks. "I felt like every second I was out something would happen. I wanted to be in there the whole game. ... We've always battled them since I was a freshman. We've always been neck and neck with them. It was nice to win one."
Defensive effort over the final two quarters was the key for the Wildcats, now 13-6 overall and 7-3 in the region after reversing a loss to Mill Creek (10-9, 7-4) earlier this season.
They struggled in the first half and trailed 39-37 at halftime, thanks to 6-for-11 3-point shooting from Mill Creek. The Hawks' Kathleen Haxton also was fouled twice on 3-point shots, so defending the 3 was hurting Duluth.
That wasn't an issue in the second half.
The Wildcats did a better job contesting those shots, limiting Mill Creek to 1-for-17 shooting from 3-point range in the second half. They closed the third quarter on a 9-0 run to take a four-point lead into the final quarter.
But the Hawks opened the fourth quarter with a flurry, and when Haxton (eight points) made their only 3-pointer of the second half -- they were 0-for-12 from long range in the second half at that point -- they led 56-53. But Mill Creek's only point the rest of the game was a free throw by India Dillard (13 points, 10 rebounds) with 4:27 left.
"Every dead ball down the stretch I was saying 'defense, defense, defense,'" Duluth girls coach Chad Pittman said. "We had to get some stops. We got some stops, some really good stops. And we rebounded the basketball. You give them second shots and that's a 3. I'm just proud of the efforts of the girls."
Duluth had given up 10 3-pointers to Mill Creek in their first matchup this season, but left Hoschton feeling much better this time. Hawks leading scorer Nadiya Miller was held to five points.
"We didn't give up," Jones said of the second half. "We had to hustle because we knew they had good shooters. We just had to pressure their shooters and make sure they weren't wide open. We had to make sure their shots were contested and we were in their face."
Duluth's Katie Powell tied Jones for high-scoring honors with 19 and also grabbed a game-high 11 boards. She also made a trio of 3-pointers, the most important on the possession after Haxton's fourth-quarter 3-pointer.
Alyah McGriff also was important for the victors with 16 points and six rebounds.
"(McGriff) got some big, old-fashioned three-point plays out there," Pittman said. "That's so big for her. We're counting on her so much and she's getting better and better every night out."
Mill Creek's strong first half was sparked by its reserves, who produced a 19-4 edge in bench points. Madison Phillips led the way with 12 points and six rebounds off the bench, and Tatum Ragsdale scored all five of her points in the second quarter.
Meredith Schulte scored 10, but eight were in the first quarter.
Duluth also got six points from Taylor Auzenne and six assists from Aerial Carruthers.
"Our region's so tough, every night you've got to bring it," Pittman said. "We preach the three E's --energy, effort and execution. I felt like all three of those areas we did a great job tonight."
Mill Creek boys 57,Duluth 42
Mill Creek opened the second quarter on a 16-0 run and coasted from there for a 57-42 victory over Duluth, which had beaten the Hawks in overtime earlier this season.
T.J. Christopher scored seven of his nine points in the decisive second-quarter run, which began with the score deadlocked at 9-9. Duluth's only lead in the game was after its first basket, a Sabionn Griffin-Bey 3-pointer.
Elijah Bryant led Mill Creek (14-5, 7-4) with 15 points. Austin Ragsdale added eight points as a total of 10 Hawks scored.
Ify Imachukwu scored a game-high 20 for Duluth (11-8, 3-7).