SUWANEE — Mill Creek kept throwing figurative haymakers at North Gwinnett during their Region 6-AAAAAAA boys basketball game Tuesday night, yet the host Bulldogs kept on getting up.
Then after J.R. Martin delivered a big gut punch of his own with a 3-pointer with one second left in regular to force overtime, Jack Kostel and the visiting Hawks finally delivered the knockout blow in the extra frame.
The 6-foot-2, 170-pound senior’s layup in the third minute of the overtime put Mill Creek up for good, and his two free throws with 23.9 seconds left sealed a hard-earned 74-70 win Tuesday night at North.
Though the girls game earlier in the evening didn’t have quite that much drama, Mill Creek also had to earn a win against North, with Alexis Figures and Sydnie Smith leading a third-quarter charge that turned a deficit into a 51-43 win.
Kostel finished the boys game with a game-high 24 points, plus eight rebounds and four assists as part of a balanced effort as the Hawks (12-10, 5-5) gained some important momentum and positioning in the region race as the stretch drive of the regular season begins.
But it didn’t come easy.
“We’ve got a lot of defensive execution errors that we’ve got to clean up,” Mill Creek coach David Allen said. “The bottom line is, we’ve got to do a better job of closing out games in the last minutes (of regulation) when we have a lead.
“But we can only control what we can control (in the region race). Right now, we’re just going to play it one game at a time and see where we end up and play who our draw is (in the region tournament).”
It looked like the Hawks might not need to sweat things out after building a halftime lead out to 10 twice in the third quarter, the last time at 53-43 following.a David Lewis layup with 2:37 left in the period.
But North (10-10, 3-6) had other ideas, and began chipping away with his superior size inside behind a nice high-low game from 6-7 senior Jared Ivey and 6-5 sophomore R.J. Godfrey.
After Martin’s steal and highlight reel coast-to-coast layup, the big Bulldog duo teamed up for the final six points in an 8-1 run over the the final 2:07 of the period to send North into the fourth quarter down just 54-51.
The Bulldogs then grabbed a s much as a 58-56 lead following a three-point play by Brendan Rigsbee, and the game was still tied at 62-all when Mill Creek looked like it had seized control once again following six straight points, including a clutch 3-pointer and 1 of 2 free throws by Kostel, to take a seemingly-safe 68-62 lead with 20.6 seconds left in regulation.
But Martin knocked down a 3-pointer of his own from the top of the key with 13 seconds left to pull North to within 68-65, and the Bulldogs got another chance after Mill Creek missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 11.9 seconds remaining.
Following a timeout, Rigsbee took possession and curiously began to drive along the right baseline with the margin still at three points.
But he drew enough of the Hawks’ defense with him before whipping a pass along the baseline into the left corner for Martin, who knocked down the ensuing shot from behind the arc just before the buzzer sounded to knot the score at 68-all an send the game into overtime.
“Our guys fought, there’s not doubt about that,” North coach Matt Garner said. “Obviously, we executed at the end (of regulation) to put it into overtime. We’re pleased about that. But overall, we let two of their guys (Kostel and Zion Wimby) get hot. Obviously, the game plan was to not let them get hot. We wanted to take them out of it, but they still wound up getting their (points).”
From there, both teams teams struggled to score during the first two trips down the floor before Mill Creek found an opening.
Kostel cut through a seam in the North defense, and Wimby hit him with a perfect back-door pass for a layup with 2:24 left to put the Hawks up 70-68.
After a pair of unsuccessful offensive possessions with the Bulldogs trying to pull even again, Josh Battle came ups tie a big driving layup along the baseline with 44 seconds left to make it a two-possession game at 72-68.
Godfrey answered with a layup at the 27-second mark, but Kostel hit a pair of free throws with 23.9 seconds left, and North missed on three shots on the other end before the clock finally ran out, and Mill Creek could finally celebrate the win.
In addition to Kostel’s heroics, Lewis had a big game with 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists, while Wimby added 13 points and Justin Birch came off the bench to add 10 big points.
Despite playing without leading scorer Kobe Jackson due to an illness, North also got a balanced effort.
Godfrey added six rebounds three assists and two blocked shots to his point total, while Rigsbee chipped in 16, Ivey finished with 12 points, eight rebounds and five blocks and Martin had 13 points and eight boards.
In the girls game, Mill Creek (9-12, 5-5) trailed North (3-16, 0-9) by five points at half, and the Bulldogs pushed the lead to as much as eight points in the early moments of the third quarter.
But trailing 29-25 with about three minutes left in the period, Figures and Smith each drained a 3-pointer from the almost identical spot on the left wing on consecutive trips down the court to vault the Hawks into the lead at 31-29, and they stretched that lead to 38-35 by the end of the quarter.
Mill Creek never trailed after that, though the did need a few key baskets in the final two minutes to finally put the game away.
"We started getting better shots," Mill Creek coach Jeremy Huckaby said. "We started getting downhill and created some space. I was really proud that (after) we got down eight, we didn't flinch. Nobody panicked. We attacked the basket better, and it helped us settle down."
Smith finished with 19 points, while Figures added 18, including 10 in the third quarter alone.
Morgan Fox scored 14 points to lead North, while Breeana Barley added 12.