North Gwinnett’s Malik Carter (12) shoots over Wheeler’s Daniel Giddens (4) during Thursday’s Class AAAAAA state playoff game. (Photo: Craig Cappy)
SUWANEE — Battling all night in its Class AAAAAA state boys basketball quarterfinal game against Wheeler, North Gwinnett simply ran out of time and fouls.
Wheeler’s athleticism and timely free-throw shooting were enough to help the Wildcats hold off the Bulldogs’ fourth-quarter comeback attempt and come away with a 61-58 win Thursday at North.
Junior superstar Jaylen Brown scored 20 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, while Avery Patterson added 18 points as Wheeler (26-5) advanced to the Final Four to meet Cobb County-rival Pebblebrook on Saturday at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion and end North’s season at 28-4.
“It was a lot of different things,” Bulldogs coach Zachary Smith said after the game. “The bottom line is it was a heartbreaking loss. … My hat goes off to (Wheeler coach) Doug (Lipscomb) and his team. They came in and did a good job. They’re tough. … They’re incredibly talented.”
As was the case in the Region 7-AAAAAA championship game win over Norcross, the Bulldogs were ice-cold shooting in the first half, and were badly beaten on the boards (24-15).
Yet, they managed to stay close thanks to tenacious defense that forced Wheeler into 12 first-half turnovers and no fewer than four offensive fouls — with Patterson picking up three total fouls in the first 16 minutes and two-sport star Elijah Staley getting two.
Trailing by as much as seven in the first quarter, North managed to battle back to within 11-9 by the end of the opening frame, and then chopped another seven-point deficit to just 18-17 by halftime.
It looked like Wheeler was finally about to break things open in the third quarter after North pulled even twice, and trailed just 27-26 after Malik Carter’s two free throws at the 5:27 mark.
And it was Wheeler’s size advantage that was the catalyst, as 6-foot-10 Daniel Giddens — who finished with eight points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots — and the 6-7 Brown pushed the Bulldogs out of the lane on both ends of the court.
“Our main intention was to keep them away from the basket,” Lipscomb said. “We didn’t do well the last game (in a triple overtime win over Shiloh) doing that. That’s defense. We just try to do the best we can.”
On the other end Giddens had two baskets in the paint, while Brown added another, and Patterson chipped in a 3-pointer and two technical foul free throws to help the Wildcats finish the period on a 16-5 run that pushed their lead out to 43-31.
The lead reached as much as 46-33 following a free throw by Brown with 7:05 left before North finally started to find its shooting stroke.
Aided by a Wheeler technical, the Bulldogs turned to T.J. Howard and Ahmad Caver, who started to get hot.
Howard hit a pair of 3-pointers, while Caver got the transition game going with a pair of layups and an assist to Carter on a fastbreak as the Bulldogs went on a 14-4 run that pulled them to within 50-47 with 2:38 to play.
North pulled as close three points twice more, only to see Wheeler do something neither it nor Shiloh could do well in Tuesday’s thriller — hit free throws.
Makhai Eastmond hit 4 of 5 from the line inside of the 1:20 mark, and Brown added two more to keep the Wildcats’ lead at two possessions.
But a lane violation on Brown’s second free throw with 18.7 seconds left kept the door open for North, and Owen Lewis took advantage with a foul-line jumper to pull the Bulldogs as close as 57-55 with 10.3 seconds remaining.
However, Jaye Stackhouse was whistled for an intentional foul on the inbound pass following a timeout, and Brown and Patterson each hit a pair of free throws in the final seconds to make Caver’s last 3-pointer at the buzzer moot, and send Wheeler into the semifinals.
Caver led all scorers with 22 points and added seven rebounds, four assists and two steals, while Howard added 15 points — 12 of which came in the fourth quarter — and three assists.
Carter also reached double figures for North with 14 points, while Lewis pulled down a team-high 11 rebounds.