Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan North Gwinnett's Lexi Brown (4) takes the ball up court past North Cobb's Sierra Barrino (5) during State AAAAAA high school girls basketball semifinals at the McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta Saturday. North Gwinnett defeated North Cobb 57-40.
ATLANTA -- It's a strange venue and the highest of stakes, but in a week the most familiar of foes will meet once again.
Norcross didn't know who it would face after the girls easily dispatched Langston Hughes on Saturday afternoon, but North Gwinnett's players knew reaching the school's first ever championship game would mean a rematch with their region rival.
The Bulldogs withstood an early charge from North Cobb before they patiently pulled away for a 57-40 win in the Class AAAAAA state semifinals at Georgia Tech.
"I'm so excited," North Gwinnett's Lexi Brown said. "I have three years of emotion bubbling up and we finally got there."
North Gwinnett lost in the semifinals a season ago, leaving the senior Brown one final season to chase a state title. And the final leg, despite the newness of its gravity, is tinged with familiarity.
"It's just like preparing for a region game," Brown said of facing Norcross. "It's always a great game. It's great competition."
North Gwinnett won two of its three meetings with the Blue Devils this season, including taking down Norcross in the 7-AAAAAA title game.
But unlike the lopsided win for Norcross, North Gwinnett faced a tougher challenge from North Cobb.
The Warriors closed out the first quarter with five straight points, taking a 14-12 lead as North Gwinnett tried to figure out the zone defense.
North Cobb took a 20-18 lead on a Sierra Barrino layup that drew a foul from North Gwinnett. Barrino missed the free throw -- a theme, with the teams combining to make just 18 of 34 -- and the Bulldogs followed by closing out the half with a 13-3 run.
Baylee Rexing and Peyton Whitted hit 3s and Alyssa Munlyn added four points off the bench as the Bulldogs built a 31-23 lead.
"It took us a little while to get used to and when we did we started getting some shots," North Gwinnett head coach Bryan Sellers said. "We started finally getting the ball to the high post and going inside-outside."
The inside was owned by Peyton Whitted and Stephanie Amichia. Whitted led the Bulldogs with 14 points and Amichia scored 13 and grabbed a season-high 17 rebounds. The rebounds sparked Amichia's offense, with her starting her scoring with one of her many offensive putbacks.
"I was really nervous coming in. That first shot in every game is always so important to me," said Amichia, who air-balled her first layup in warmups. "When I got it and put it in, I knew it was going to be a good night."
North Gwinnett opened the second half by extending its lead to 12 points and from there, slowly pulled away the rest of the game. Brown, who struggled shooting with just nine points, grabbed five rebounds and had five assists and five steals.
"Even having an off night, I felt like I could make up for it with defense and getting my teammates involved. It's not always about points, especially as a point guard," Brown said. "I was proud of my teammates, they all stepped up."
Munlyn finished the game with 12 points, Joslyn Belcher gave the Bulldogs quality possessions and had five assists and eight rebounds to go with her 3-pointer.
"Our team is truly that, it's just a team," Sellers said.
And it's now somewhere it's never been, as a team or as a school.
"We've been talking about it all year," Sellers said. "That's been our goal is to win this (next) game."