Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Buford's Shereese Williams (40) flies past Laney's Alexis Lester on her way to the basket on Thursday.
MACON -- Blanche Alverson, the Class AA player of the year, is gone. So are seven other seniors from last season's state championship team.
One thing isn't missing, though. The Buford girls still play in-your-face and take-no-prisoners defense.
"That's how you win games," said Andraya Carter, the Wolves' sophomore standout.
Laney fell victim to the Buford defense a year ago in the state semifinals and again Thursday. Despite their graduation losses, the Wolves are headed back to the Class AA state championship game Saturday at the Macon Centreplex to play unbeaten Vidalia.
Buford forced 26 turnovers -- 21 coming on steals -- and defeated Laney 62-49. Carter led the way with 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
"This is so sweet," Buford coach Gene Durden said. "With all the players that we lost no one really gave us a chance. But here we are again."
"It's amazing when you think of missing all those seniors," Carter said. "We had some doubts ourselves. But we were determined to show that we are a program and not one-hit wonders."
Buford (28-4) lost the Region 6-AA championship game to Greater Atlanta Christian, but has won each of its four state tournament games by a comfortable margin.
Laney (26-4) came closer than it did in the semifinals a year ago, but that was only because the Wildcats were 9 of 18 from behind the 3-point arc.
The Wolves didn't miss many, either. Buford was 8 of 14 on 3-pointers, with Lacey Pass going 5 of 9 for all of her 15 points.
Pass is one of three senior starters and two reserves that saw limited minutes a year ago. Alysha Rudnik also had a good game in the semifinals, scoring 12 points.
"I'm so proud of that group," Durden said. "They played against last year's seniors in practice and that helped make them better players. Now they have stepped up and are being rewarded."
Pass also had a little luck on her side, putting Buford ahead 21-14 at the end of the first quarter with a weird looking 3-point heave at the buzzer.
"I saw the clock and just threw it up there," Pass said. "I couldn't believe that it went in."
Laney, which got four 3-pointers from Mykala Jones in the first half, cut a 32-23 intermission lead down to 36-31 on back-to-back 3-pointers by Jermika Gibson. But then Carter took over, scoring seven straight points beginning with a 3-pointer of her own.
Pass completed the 10-0 run with another shot from behind the arc, then hit again to end the third quarter and start the fourth.
"Lacey was really rolling," Carter said.
The lead was 52-36 after the fifth 3-pointer by Pass and the Wolves had a trip back to the title game well under control.
Jones finished with 22 points, hitting six 3-pointers. But Carter kept the junior guard under control in the second half and the Wolves continued forcing Laney turnovers.
Shereese Williams, Buford's undersized junior center, had seven steals, while Rudnik and Carter each had four swipes.
Laney has been to the semifinals nine times since 1985 and advanced to the championship game just once. Buford, meanwhile, will be playing in the title game for the second year in a row.
"It feels so good to get back to the championship game," said Rudnik, a Georgia Tech softball recruit. "Defense is what got us this far. Now we need to keep it going for one more game. It would really be special to win again. Not many people thought we could do it. But we believed in ourselves. Our hard work paid off."