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After injuries, tough schedule, Buford girls have their swagger back

Photo: Craig Cappy  Buford's Kristin Munson (52) shoots over Decatur's Alara Johnson (32) during the game earlier this month.

Photo: Craig Cappy Buford's Kristin Munson (52) shoots over Decatur's Alara Johnson (32) during the game earlier this month.

Who's afraid of the big, bad Wolves?

Throughout the 2011-12 high school basketball season, not quite as many people as in the past three seasons, when Buford's girls posted a combined 80-14 record and won the last three state championships to become the standard bearers Class AA.

Injuries to key players, a rugged, national non-Region 6-AA schedule and a loaded slate of opponents in the upper half of region play -- including state-ranked foes GAC (No. 6), Lovett (No. 5) and Decatur (No. 8) -- have made fourth-ranked Buford seem even a little vulnerable at times.

"It's been an unusual season, to be sure," Buford coach Gene Durden said.

But if their 90-50 rout of Kendrick in the opening round of the state tournament last Friday is any indication, teams looking to knock Buford off its three-year perch at the top of the Class AA mountain be forewarned.

The big, bad Wolves may be back.

The injuries, for the most part, have healed, and that difficult schedule has made an already veteran team even more battle tested.

It's enough for Buford to get its collective swagger back.

"We never really had all the pieces there," 5-foot-8 guard Andraya Carter said. "Finally, everybody's here, and it's all coming together at the right time."

Carter, a veteran of all Buford's titles the last three seasons, has been perhaps the biggest missing piece after missing much of the season due to a knee injury suffered in a pick-up game last spring.

And by her own admission, the Tennessee-bound senior is still working her way back to the level she played at before the injury. Though averaging 8.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2.0 assists over 12 games, there have been signs of the old Andraya Carter.

"It was hard at first because my leg wasn't strong enough for me to do any extra work after practices," Carter said. "So, my first games back, I was still kind of rusty offensively and skill-wise. I was getting frustrated, but I was just so happy to be back playing again.

"Now after getting back a few weeks, I've gotten stronger. I'm able to shoot after practices and work on my skills. ... I don't feel quite like my old self, and there are still a ton of things to work on, but it's getting better."

Carter wasn't the only Wolves standout battling injuries this season.

Star juniors Kaela Davis (ankle) and Kristina Nelson (shoulder) have also been hampered at various points throughout the season, and fellow junior MacKenzie Darrah missed more than three weeks after suffering a dislocated hip in late January.

Those injuries caused Durden and the Wolves to make some unexpected adjustments.

"We had to play some kids out of position at times," Durden said. "We didn't have time to get some younger kids playing time and give them a chance to develop, and it made a lot of our other players play different roles.

"One of the hardest things in basketball is getting comfortable in a role, and then all of the sudden, you're thrown in a different role. Your comfort level goes down. ... Our chemistry was not real good, and a lot of that was because of the different roles we had to play."

The Wolves' comfort level wasn't helped by playing a schedule that included trips to the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix over the holidays, plus several other showcase events and its annual regular-season game with Class A powerhouse Wesleyan.

"When we put together that national schedule, we thought we'd have all our kids healthy," Durden recalled of the arduous December stretch. "We played six days in Phoenix, came back for only three days off and then played another three straight days, all against nationally ranked opponents -- seven in a 10-day span."

Yet despite their 7-5 start to the season, the Wolves have persevered.

Davis (18.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.0 spy, 2.0 apg) and Nelson (10.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg) assumed greater leadership roles, while others like Maya Dillard (3.5 apt) and Kallie Case (6.5 ppg) -- an Alabama softball signee who had not played basketball since her freshman season -- have stepped in and helped Buford meet its challenges.

And with Carter and Darrah now back in the lineup, the Wolves seem ready to go back on the attack.

"With everybody back, we're just playing better as a team," Durden said. "Our confidence and everything else has improved."