Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips<br> Buford's Kaela Davis, right, and MacKenzie Darrah, center, jump into a pile of their teammates celebrating their victory over GAC during the Class AA state championship in Macon on Saturday.
MACON — The Buford girls held up three fingers in celebration as their fans yelled “Three-peat! Three-peat! Three-peat!”
The Wolves won their third straight Class AA state title, just as many had expected from the beginning of the season. But it took a wakeup call along the way.
In fact, the championship may have been won as much during a regular-season loss at Greater Atlanta Christian as it was on Saturday against the Spartans at the Macon Centreplex.
In-your-face defense is the Buford trademark and it was on full display in the 57-38 championship victory. It had been missing at times early this season, though, especially in a 52-43 loss at GAC on Feb. 6.
The Wolves closed the season with 10 consecutive victories. Only one team broke 40 points against them, with East Hall getting 41 in the opening round.
“We had to refocus,” junior standout Andraya Carter said. “It’s not physical, it’s all mental with us. We just had to get the mental part down.
“We decided we had to go back to what we had always done. That’s playing hard and playing defense.”
It was the addition of sophomore standout Kaela Davis, who played on a Class AAAAA state winner at Norcross a year ago, that created such high expectations for Buford this season. But it took a while for everything to gel.
The 52-43 loss to GAC came just 10 days after a 48-37 defeat to Class A power Wesleyan. Obviously, everything wasn’t quite falling into place as hoped.
“It takes something to wake you up,” Davis said.
Buford responded, the Wolves beating GAC for the third time in four games this season despite getting just two points on a pair of late free throws from a banged-up Carter, who injured her right thumb in the first quarter.
“Being able to win without her scoring says a lot about our program,” coach Gene Durden said.
MacKenzie Darrah, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, came off the bench to score 18 points and senior Sheresse Williams contributed 10 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Davis finished with 15 points and fellow Tennessee recruit Carter grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked a couple of shots.
It all added up to a convincing victory after a tight first half.
“We knew we had to do the right things to win,” Durden said. “It’s hard to play a team four times, especially a team as good as GAC.
“We knew it was going to be a war and it was. In the first half, they put us on our heels.”
Buford (29-3) led just 20-17 at halftime had it took a banked-in jumper at the buzzer by Darrah to even make the margin three points.
But Buford went on a 13-2 run to close the third quarter, moving the score from 25-23 to 38-25. The last nine points came in a row as Williams scored seven points in the quarter and Darrah added six. GAC (25-8) never got closer than 11 points after that and the margin continued to grow as the fourth quarter went on.
The Spartans, which made it to the semifinals a year ago, got 12 points from sophomore Kristina Nelson and 11 from freshman Brianna Cummings. But GAC was beaten decisively on the boards and struggled mightily shooting.
“We missed a lot of easy shots,” GAC coach Cal Boyd said.
With only two seniors, though, the Spartans appear to have a bright future.
“To start two freshman and two sophomores and make it to the championship game is pretty good,” Boyd said. “I’m proud of our team for getting this far.”
But this was Buford’s year once again.
Durden made the state title game three times while coaching at Dade County and lost them all. Now he is 3-0 in such games at Buford.
The Wolves, who lose just two senior starters, don’t want to stop there, though.
“We want a four-peat,” said Carter, who had 26 points in the semifinals.
“This is a lot of fun,” Davis added.
If you are having problems viewing this slide show, click here