Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Buford head coach Allen Whitehart screams as he hugs Jake Burnette after their 63-59 win over Laney during the Class AA state semifinals Thursday in Macon.
MACON — As far as Buford’s boys had come both in the Class AA state semifinal against Laney and the entire season, Jake Burnette wasn’t about to let the Wolves’ magical postseason run end.
With Buford clinging to a one-point lead, the 6-foot-5 senior came up with a huge steal near midcourt and sank two free throws with three seconds remaining to seal a 63-59 win Thursday at the Macon Centreplex.
“I was telling myself we were going to win,” said Burnette, who finished with 11 points — seven from the foul line — six rebounds and three assists. “There was no way we were going to let us lose.”
Burnette’s heroics capped a huge team effort that sent Buford (23-8) to the championship game for the first time since 2002.
T.J. Shipes finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Zac Lynn added 15 points — including eight straight to start a third-quarter run that helped the Wolves turn around a nine-point halftime deficit.
Despite staying close most of the first half, and leading most of the first quarter, Buford was on the ropes at the half.
Laney (29-2) forced six of the Wolves’ nine first-half turnovers in the second quarter and turned them into eight fastbreak points.
And when they weren’t in transition, the Wildcats were dominating the boards, owning a 24-9 rebounding advantage at the half on their way to taking a 33-24 lead into intermission.
Coach Allen Whitehart’s halftime message was brief and fairly calm.
“As coaches, we kind of asked, ‘Do you break them down or pick them up?’ And we had to pick them up at halftime,” Whitehart said. “We calmly told them what had to happen. I asked them if they were really hungry and if they really wanted it. And if they did, we really had to buckle down and play defense and get the win.”
Lynn definitely took Whitehart’s message to heart.
After hitting a 3-pointer just 16 seconds into the third quarter, the 6-foot senior guard came up with a steal and then scored six more points over the next 1:13.
And when Shipes converted a layup with 5:47 left in the third quarter, Buford had regained the lead at 34-33.
“We’ve said all year the third quarter is our quarter,” said Lynn, who added three steals to his effort. “We’re either going to make a run or put the game away. … I was just trying to give our team a spark and put us back in the game. ... We were just hustling, leaving everything on the floor. Whatever it takes.”
That can-do attitude paid off as the Wolves outscored Laney 21-6 in the third to build a 45-39 advantage heading into the final quarter.
The lead reached as much as 53-45 after a pair of free throws by Jamal English with 5:04 remaining, but the Wildcats weren’t going down without a fight.
Trailing 57-50 with 3:26 to play, senior guard Rod Hall took matters into his own hands, penetrating the lane to either get layups or get to the foul line on offense. He also led a spirited defensive effort that sparked a 6-1 run and cut Buford’s lead to just 58-56 following a Hall free throw with 1:01 left.
With Buford missing some key free throws that would’ve extended it’s lead, Hall and the Wildcats continued to creep closer.
And when Hall hit a driving layup with 13 seconds left, the Wolves’ lead was just 60-59.
Kyle Kellam then hit one of his two free throws after a quick foul with 11 seconds left and the lead was 61-59. Laney had a chance to either tie the game or take the lead in the waning seconds.
Enter Burnette, who had been playing in the center of the court in Buford’s 1-3-1 fullcourt trap throughout the second half. He broke quickly to his left when he saw Laney’s Jamie West sneak a peek up the right wing.
“I was kind of sitting in the middle trying to take it away,” Burnette said. “I saw (West) looking across (the court), and I went for it.”
Burnette got it, controlling the floor in the front court before being fouled with three seconds left.
But the job wasn’t done yet, not until the Georgia Tech baseball signee rattled the first free throw in off the front iron and hit nothing but net on the second to seal the Buford win.
The Wolves also got a strong effort from Kellam, who scored nine points, dished out a game-high seven assists and added three steals, plus Alex Flagler, who had eight points and two steals.
Hall led all scorers with 20 points, while Corintian Brown added 11 points and eight rebounds for Laney, and Robert Turner finished with 10 points.
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