Staff Photo: John Bohn Greater Atlanta Christian's CiCi Buford (22) keeps clear as Buford's Kaela Davis (3) takes a rebound Friday's rematch of last season's state championship game.
NORCROSS -- Playing her first game back at GAC since leaving the school over the summer, Buford's Kristina Nelson could be forgiven if she was a little nervous for the Wolves' Region 6-AA, Division A showdown with the Spartans.
But whatever nerves she had during the first half were quickly swept away in the final 16 minutes as the 6-foot-4 junior post had a monster second half to help top-ranked Buford hold off a serious challenge from No. 7 GAC for a 51-45 victory Friday at the Long Forum.
After being held scoreless and with just one rebound by intermission, Nelson scored all of her team-high 16 points and the bulk of her nine rebounds after the break as the Wolves (10-5, 5-0) remained unbeaten in subregion play.
"You know she had to be (nervous)," Buford coach Gene Durden said of Nelson, who also had two blocked shots on the evening. "Kristina did a great job in the second half. We just had to get the ball to her, and I think we did a good job of that."
GAC (11-5, 1-2) made sure it wasn't so easy to do that in the first half, especially during a first quarter in which neither team was able to get much going offensively and ended with Buford holding a 7-3 lead.
But the Wolves got going a little in the second quarter and looked like they wouldn't need Nelson's heroics in the second quarter as Kaela Davis and Kallie Case began to get the Buford transition game going.
Davis had seven points and two assists in the period, while Case added six points and an assist as Buford built as much as a 12-point lead before taking a 24-14 into halftime.
But while Nelson scored six early points in the opening 1:24 of the third quarter to give the Wolves a 30-19 lead, GAC's guards began to apply the defensive pressure -- especially on Davis, who was held to just four points after halftime -- and help the Spartans slowly chip away.
Brianna Cummings and Sydni Means forced several Buford turnovers and helped convert them to points as GAC used a 12-4 run -- half of which came from Cummings -- over the final 5:14 of the quarter to pull the Spartans to within 34-31 heading into the final frame.
"I thought our defense was pretty good," GAC coach Cal Boyd said. "We tried to limit Kaela. We know she's an excellent player. And I thought overall, we did that."
Twice in the fourth quarter, GAC managed to pull as close as two points, but each time, Nelson came up big.
First, with Buford clinging to a 36-34 lead, she picked up the loose ball on a blocked shot in the lane and scored in the paint to give the Wolves a little more breathing room at 38-34 with 6:41 left to play.
Then after Cummings hit two free throws to pull the Spartans to within 38-36, Nelson swatted a drive attempt down the lane by Cummings and ignited Case on a fastbreak that Davis finished to push the Buford lead back to four at 40-36 with 5:23 remaining.
And GAC had no answer for Nelson's size and strength in the middle as she scored off two stickbacks and a lob from MacKenize Darrah to lead a 9-2 run that extended the Buford lead to 47-38 with 2:23 left.
"Our kids did a good job of recognizing (GAC trying to eliminate Davis) and going into the post and trying to score easy points," Durden said. "Playing in this type of environment, playing against a well-coached, good team, does nothing but make (us) better for the region."
Still, GAC refused to quit, twice pulling as close as four points, with the final time coming after Cummings' layup with 19 seconds left pulled the Spartans to within 49-45.
But Maya Dillard's free throws with 6.4 seconds remaining sealed the deal for Buford and ended GAC's attempt at a game comeback.
"Overall, I'm pleased with our team," Boyd said. "I told our girls, 'You don't win the state championship (Friday). You don't lose the state championship (Friday).' It's just a game helping you get in place for your seeding for the region tournament, and we're just going to keep plugging on this journey. Ultimately, (Buford's) size got us in the end."
Davis wound up with a strong overall game for Buford with 14 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, while Case chipped in with 10 points four rebounds and three assists.
Cummings led all scorers with 19 points, while Means chipped in 15 points, four rebounds and three steals for GAC.