SUWANEE — Down three points with time winding down in the fourth quarter, Brendan Rigsbee got North Gwinnett’s boys basketball team into overtime with a clutch 3-pointer.
The Region 7-AAAAAAA champions then used their game-long advantage at the free-throw line in the extra period for a 64-59 victory over Archer in the first round of the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs Friday night. The No. 1 seed, fresh off three straight blowout victories in the region tournament, fought off a major challenge from Archer, the fourth seed from 8-AAAAAAA, to reach a second-game home game against East Coweta next week.
Despite the seeding, North head coach Matt Garner counted on a tough game from battle-tested Archer and his friend, Tigers head coach Joel Lecoeuvre. Both Garner and Lecoeuvre are former North point guards.
The physical game was impacted by foul issues on both sides — North’s Jared Ivey and Archer’s Justin Edmondson fouled out in the fourth quarter, and Archer’s Areyon Johnson and Christian Drummer fouled out in OT. Ivey’s loss eliminated some of the Bulldogs’ height advantage, but teammate R.J. Godfrey delivered inside with 26 points, six rebounds and six blocked shots.
“I hate that it came down to this,” said Garner, whose team won its sixth straight. “We knew it would be a tough game. I told our guys that. On the scouting report, at the end of it, it said ‘This will be a dogfight.’ And it was.”
Most of the game was played within a possession — Archer’s eight-point lead in the second quarter was the game’s largest — and the host Bulldogs (17-11) were in danger in the final minute of regulation. Archer’s Mekhi Carter (team-high five assists, four steals) made one of two free throws with 43 seconds left for a 54-51 lead.
That's when Rigsbee made a decisive play. The senior created space from his defender on the next trip and buried a game-tying 3-pointer with 24 seconds left.
“First thing was get downhill, and then I saw (the defender) overplaying me, so I pump faked and I was like, ‘Alright, let it go,’” Rigsbee said. “And I hit it. I told Coach Garner, ‘My shot’s finally here.’”
Rigsbee finished with 12 points, none more important than those three.
“I’m very proud of (Rigsbee),” Garner said. “Sometimes I have to tell Rigsbee that I think he’s better than what he thinks he is. One of these days I hope he realizes how great he can be. That moment right there, I’m glad he was like, ‘The ball’s in my hands, I need to make something happen.’ And he made something happen.”
After that shot, the first attempt by Archer (18-11) for a game-winner was thwarted by Godfrey, who blocked Brent Smith (seven points, seven rebounds) inside and created a jump ball with 6.7 seconds left. The Tigers retained possession, but C.J. Hines slipped on a drive to the basket and North ended up with possession with 1.2 seconds left on another jump ball. A long pass to Godfrey under the basket didn’t result in a good shot as time expired.
“Rigsbee hits that shot,” Lecoeuvre said. “We had them. All we had to do is get one stop. He hits a step-back 3 and ties it. Heck of a play.”
Archer led by a point early in OT on Smith’s three-point play, but North regained the lead right away on Matt Gilbert’s drive to the basket for his only points of the game. After the Tigers missed a 3-pointer on the next trip, North’s J.R. Martin ran out for a breakaway and was fouled hard by Drummer. An intentional foul was called, Martin (18 points, six rebounds) made both free throws and Archer never led again.
"(Gilbert) gets a layup, his only field goal of the game, and we leave our feet and give him a layup," Lecoeuvre said. "Then we shoot the bad 3, get the intentional foul and it's just like, bam."
The Bulldogs made 8 of 12 free throws in overtime and 27 of 38 overall, compared to 12 of 19 for Archer.
“I think our guys were just being physical with holding onto the ball,” Garner said of the free-throw edge. “Obviously, we drew a bunch of fouls. I was just proud that when we got the ball we were physical with it. We weren’t coughing it up and giving them any freebies. … (Archer’s) just really aggressive. We planned for that. You’ve got to meet the passes. When you get the ball, when you’re dribbling, you’ve got to have your head up but also just be physical and embrace the contact.
"That was a game that had tons of fouls called, but they could have called 20 more than they did. There was a foul every time down the court the way it went.”
It helped that North kept feeding Godfrey, who was fresh off a 25-point effort in the region tournament finals. The sophomore outdid that effort by a point, making 16 of 20 free throws — more makes and attempts than the entire Archer team.
“I told (Godfrey) toward the beginning of the game that I didn’t think he wanted the ball as much,” Garner said. “I told him, ‘You need to act like you’re the best player on the court.’ I don’t know if it was my words or what, but he woke up after the first quarter. It wasn’t that he was playing bad. He was playing passive. And all of the sudden he wasn’t. He wanted the ball in his hands. That’s big time for a sophomore.”
Godfrey was particularly important when Ivey (five points, five rebounds, four blocks) fouled out with 4:32 left in regulation.
“To be honest, I got really, really nervous,” Godfrey said. “I got scared when Jared went out. But we got the job done.”
His offense, and his rim protection, were big reasons why.
“Just attacking the basket,” Godfrey said of his big day at the line. “They couldn’t guard me. They’re too little.”
It was a heartbreaking end for Archer, which added another chapter to a season full of close setbacks. Ten of its 11 losses came by six points or less, and that six-point loss was in double OT to Shiloh in the region semifinals. Five of the Tigers’ losses came in tight games with Grayson and Shiloh, the state’s highest-ranked teams.
Hines led Archer with 17 points, six rebounds and four steals, while Edmondson (16 points) and Johnson (12 points, seven rebounds, three assists) also made big contributions before fouling out.
“I hate to see these seniors go,” Lecoeuvre said. “They’ve really put it on the line for us for four years. … We were ranked in the top 10 in the state all year. That’s the first time since Randall Smith’s senior year in 2013. Just had a really good year, but we didn’t get it done tonight.”