SNELLVILLE — Somehow, it came down to a made free throw.
After a first half where South Gwinnett and Dacula combined to make just 6 of 26 from the line, South's Kierra Clayton hit the second of two with 10.6 seconds remaining to seal the 44-40 win and send South Gwinnett back to the state tournament and into a semifinal game in the Region 8-AAAAAA tournament against Archer on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Berkmar.
The four-point win came after a wild comeback where South outscored Dacula 27-9 in the final 10 minutes of the game.
“The kids, they stepped up,” South Gwinnett head coach Kidada Holtzclaw said. “We talked about whether they were ready to go home or not. It seemed like they were in the first half.”
Neither team could get much offense going in a frenetic and physical first half. The modest 20-13 lead Dacula managed by halftime was as much the result of 14 points from Jonnae Johnson as it was 4 of 15 shooting by South Gwinnett at the free throw line. The missed free throws diminished the impact of Dacula’s 14 first-half fouls.
Dacula hit just 2 of 11, but Johnson’s acuity weaving through the Comets’ defense allowed the Falcons to build a 20-13 halftime lead. The lead grew to as much as 14 near the end of the third quarter when Dacula took a 31-17 lead.
Then, everything changed.
Over the final 10 minutes, a South Gwinnett team absent for much of the game arrived with a high-tempo press defense leaping and diving for pass, trapping near mid-court and created a general melee.
“We backed off our press a little bit (early in the game),” Holtzclaw said. “We wanted to save a little bit so we could have that kick in the fourth quarter.”
The kick landed square on Dacula.
Taylor Harris scored eight of her 10 points in the fourth quarter and all her points came in the second half.
“Taylor Harris did a great job of getting us going defensively,” Holtzclaw said. “We just went with it after that.”
Over the final 10 minutes, a 31-17 Dacula lead vanished. With 4:35 remaining, it was another free throw with tied the game, another indication of the late-game South turnaround. In the fourth quarter, the dreadful free throw shooting of the first half vanished with the Comets making 13 of 15.
The win returns South back to the state tournament after missing it a season ago and the celebration when the buzzer sounded allowed the players to smile away the frustration of a year ago.
“These kids have worked really hard,” Holtzclaw said. “Not making the tournament a year ago really took a toll on these kids.
“Once we found our defense we found our confidence.”