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Buford, GAC look for bragging rights on the court tonight

The intensity of the athletic rivalry between Buford and Greater Atlanta Christian has spanned all sports the two schools play each other in over recent years.

But nowhere has the rivalry been more intense lately than on the basketball court, culminating in meetings between the Wolves and Spartans in last year's Class AA state boys and girls championship games in Macon, with the two schools splitting the titles -- Buford winning the girls game and GAC taking the boys.

Tonight, the two schools meet again for the first of two regular-season clashes -- and recent history suggests additional postseason meetings -- in a doubleheader at GAC's Long Forum, beginning with the girls game at 6 p.m.

"It's one of those situations where both schools and both teams look forward to it," GAC coach Eddie Martin said. "But really, it's not a do or die for either team (at this point of the season). I think we'll both come away a little better and a little wiser.

"It's a big game in everyone's eyes, but it's just another region (6-AA, Division A) game, really."

To the coaches, that may be. However, both student bodies and fan bases -- and perhaps some of the players on each team -- may beg to differ, especially given the lopsided scores in each title game last year, which saw Buford's girls win by 19 points and the GAC boys claim a 40-point win.

"That game was probably circled big (on the calendar) since last year (by the players), I'll be honest with you," Buford boys coach Allen Whitehart said. "But this is a major test to see where we are at this stage of (this) season. When you make a playoff run, it's important to play well in games like this to prepare yourself.

"It's a friendly rivalry. A lot of our guys are friends with their guys, and I have a lot of respect for Eddie and his program. From a competitive aspect, we want to win this game real bad."

There is definitely familiarity between the two teams among both the boys and girls, especially on the girls side.

Buford's Kaela Davis, Gwinnett's second-leading scorer with an average of 21.4 points per game, attended GAC through eighth grade before transferring to Norcross -- and helping the Blue Devils to the first of their two straight Class AAAAA state championships -- as a freshman, and then moving on to Buford last year as the Wolves wrapped up their third straight Class AA title. Davis' brother A.J. also played his first two high school seasons for GAC's boys team before transferring to Buford in October. He is currently playing with the Wolves junior varsity while he awaits to become eligible for varsity play.

In addition, Wolves junior 6-foot-4 post Kristina Nelson played her first two high school seasons with the Spartans before transferring to Buford over the summer.

But while the players changing places in recent years changes the dynamics of the makeups of the two teams, GAC girls coach Cal Boyd doesn't expect it to generate any extra ill feelings between them, though he admits playing against Nelson, in particular, may seem strange.

"I think that will be tough, to be honest, because she'd been at GAC so long and she built a good legacy," Boyd said. "But Kristina is a great kid, and we'll have our hands full trying to deal with her down low."

Indeed, the No. 7 state-ranked Spartans (11-4), who do not feature a player taller than 5-11, may have their hands full with top-ranked Buford (9-5), which features four other players 6-2 or taller besides Nelson, including the 6-2 Davis and 6-3 junior MacKenzie Darrah.

However, GAC can counter with a quick and athletic corps of guards, led by sophomores Brianna Cummings (15.9 points, 2.5 steals per game) and Sydni Means (9.9 points, 4.9 assists, 3.9 steals per game).

And with Tennessee-bound senior guard Andraya Carter still rehabbing a knee injury sustained last spring, Buford coach Gene Durden is naturally concerned about the pressure his backcourt will see.

However, after playing against seven nationally-ranked opponents during a brutal non-region schedule, he is hopeful that even the talented Spartans won't be anything his Wolves can't handle.

"No doubt, (GAC is) a well-coached, athletic team," Durden said. "And we've got to come ready to play and bring our 'A' game, especially playing in their gym.

"(The GAC guards) will be a challenge, but I can tell you it's nothing like we've already seen. We're not going to be intimidated."

While the GAC boys have more size to match up with Buford, the Spartans will still have their work cut out for them in dealing with Wolves 6-8 post T.J. Shipes, a Georgia State signee who leads the county in rebounding at 11 per game to go along with 13.5 points per contest.

"You know they're going to (try to) pound it inside to Shipes," Martin said. "He's going to get the basketball some and he's going to score some. We just have to prevent him from getting easy looks and second-chance points."

But as with the girls, GAC counters with a strong backcourt led by juniors Delano Spencer and Collin Swinton and senior Cole Hobbs, who combine to average nearly 41 points and 11 assists per game.

That should make for an interesting matchup with a Buford trio of Isaiah Williams, Kyle Kellam and Payton Wehunt, who combine to contribute roughly 35 points and nine assists per game.

"The key for us is to try to stop Swinton and Spencer and keep Hobbs from shooting us out of the gym," Whitehart said. "We have to contain their runs and limit what beats us as far as beating ourselves is concerned, and limit their major contributors."