Norcross’ Khalen Pinkett (3) drives to the basket against Duluth’s Obinna Ofodile (35) during the Region 7- AAAAAA tournament Tuesday at Collins Hill High School in Suwanee. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
SUWANEE — Have no doubt, this game matters.
North Gwinnett’s boys return to the Region 7-AAAAAA championship game Wednesday night to take on Norcross after the two teams came away with narrow wins in the region semifinals on Tuesday at Collins Hill.
Norcross, in the opener, pulled away from Duluth for a 66-56 win and in the nightcap North survived in the final seconds to top Peachtree Ridge for the third time this season 60-55.
Though the state tournament looms this weekend and the teams playing their third game in as many days after last week’s weather forced massive changes to the qualifying tournament’s schedule, both coaches scoffed at the suggestion of playing with any reserve Wednesday. The winner takes the No. 1 seed from 7-AAAAAA, the loser the No. 2. Duluth and Peachtree Ridge play for the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. with the boys finale at 7:30 p.m.
“We definitely want to win it,” Norcross head coach Jesse McMillan said. “Both (North Gwinnett and Peachtree Ridge) are big rivals as well.
“We want to win every game we play.”
For North, a region championship is something to envy. Two seasons ago they lost by two to the same Blue Devils they face Wednesday.
“It’s business,” North Gwinnett head coach Zach Smith said. “At this point in the season, this is where your preseason condition comes into play
“The basketball in this region is fantastic. You better be strapped up and ready to go.”
A lesson both teams showed in their wins.
To earn its trip to the final, Norcross withstood the best shooting Duluth could throw up. But for every shot Duluth sank, Norcross found an answer, and most often the answer was Khalen Pinkett.
In the first half when the Wildcats nailed nearly every 3-pointer they took, Pinkett found room driving to the basket, scoring eight first-half points. With the help of three 3s from William Gibbons, Norcross mitigated seven 3s drained by the Wildcats.
Zaynah Robinson hit four and Kai Lambert sank three more for Duluth in the first half. The 3s and 6 of 8 shooting from the free-throw line accounted for all of the Wildcats points against the Blue Devils’ mostly zone defense. Robinson led all scorers with 24 points.
“You just have to hope and pray they aren’t going to hit another seven,” McMillan said. “When they are shooting that way in the first half your players are going to start to doubt themselves.”
McMillan’s message to his team at halftime was to extend the defense and, according to Pinkett play with “elite focus.”
Duluth, which didn’t hit a field goal in the first half and trailed 31-27, matched Norcross in the third quarter with eight points from Anthony Showell. Pinkett was the anchor again for the Blue Devils adding nine points, including 5 of 6 from the free-throw line.
“They started to come up on me (defensively),” Pinkett said. “We called the right plays to get us open. We just had to attack, attack, attack.”
And as the game wore on, Norcross’ defense asserted itself and the long-range attack of Duluth diminished. Pinkett finished off his 23-point performance with six more points and Lorenzo Carter scored six of his 15 points in the fourth quarter.
“He put us on his back,” McMillan said of Pinkett. “That’s what you want your senior leaders to do.”
For North, the battle with Peachtree Ridge continues to wage.
After an overtime win and an five-point win in the regular season, it wasn’t until Malik Carter finished off an impressive performance that North pulled away for the win.
North built a six point lead in the first quarter and over the next two, that lead held near that margin. The Bulldogs got 3-pointers from Carter and Kamaran Calhoun to build its small lead early in the game. Peachtree Ridge got six points from Amir Warnock in the paint in the first quarter before limiting the big-man with its defense the rest of the night. Warnock missed most of the second half with foul trouble and struggled around the rim under pressure from Carter, finishing with 12 points, leading the Lions along with 12 from Khalil McCoy.
“He was rock solid defensively,” Smith said of Carter.
On Tuesday, he added some more. Carter scored a game-high 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, spreading both his points and rebounds evenly through the game before closing the door in the final minutes.
Peachtree Ridge took a 53-52 lead with 3:06 remaining in the game on a free throw from D’Angelo Gibbs. Carter answered by scoring the next four points. He tipped in a layup at the rim and then hit a pair of free throws to give North a 56-53 lead it never relinquished, charging into the region finals. Tobias Howard scored 13 for North and Calhoun finished with 12.
“That was high-level basketball,” Smith said of the game’s play. “These young guys have a chance to make their mark on our program.”