Photo: John Charles Buford's Kyle Doyle (23) drives past Savannah's Tyreese Rivers (22) and Jermaine Williams (4) in the Class AAA semifinals on Saturday.
SAVANNAH -- The Buford boys basketball team overcame a lot this season just to reach the Class AAA Final Four, including a slow start and also the death of a teammate.
But on Saturday night at Armstrong Atlantic State University, the Wolves couldn't overcome the Savannah High Blue Jackets and their partisan home crowd as the Jackets denied Buford its second trip to the state finals in three years with a 54-50 victory in the state semifinals.
Even before he left the gym, Buford coach Allen Whitehart had put the Wolves' season in perspective.
"I'm proud of these kids for all they have overcome," Whitehart said, noting again the passing of Adam Smith who collapsed in team workouts in September and died. "In pregame, we rewound all the way back to conditioning in the fall. I told the kids win or lose I was proud of them. Ultimately, we were playing for more than winning games. We were playing for someone who was one of us, and I think that's why our kids never quit tonight."
With a raucous crowd on their side to help them ward off the pesky Wolves (25-7), the Jackets (28-3) advanced to next week's championship game where they will face a familiar foe from their own town. With Johnson-Savannah knocking off North Hall 56-34 in the earlier boys semifinal, it will be an all-Savannah showdown for the state crown.
The rivals met in their region championship game with Savannah winning. The Jackets, who played for the Class AAAAA title last year, and Atomsmashers split two games in the regular season.
It was evident many fans in the stands were hoping for state title game between the local teams, but Whitehart said the seemingly favorable atmosphere for the Jackets wasn't a big factor in the game.
"I don't get caught up in that," he said. "We had a lot of fans here cheering for us also. You still have to tip it off and put the ball in the basket."
It was ultimately the Jackets who did that better, especially in the second half when they used a trio of 3-pointers in the third quarter to fuel a run that broke open a game they led just 26-22 at halftime.
The Jackets surged ahead 38-25 in the first five minutes of the third after Buford had closed within a point at the start of the quarter.
The Wolves, who played for the Class AA state crown in 2011, managed to survive the onslaught, getting within 42-36 going into the final period.
They got within two points early in the closing stanza, but could never catch the Jackets who did their best to work the clock after going up 52-44 inside the final three minutes.
Still, Buford battled back and was within 54-50 with a chance in the final moments, but a missed 3-pointer that would have gotten them within a point with 18 seconds left was off the mark, all but ending the game and the Wolves' state title dreams.
"That just shows the fight in our kids," Whitehart said of the Wolves' giving themselves a chance to the end. "They never quit and they didn't again tonight."
A.J. Davis led Buford with 21 points. Kyle Doyle added 12 and Isaiah Williams scored 10.
Jamal Norman paced Savannah with 16 points. Jovante Spivey followed with 14.
The score was close throughout a quick first half that lasted right at 30 minutes in actual time as both teams took turns pushing the ball down the court to their offensive end.
Both teams threatened to separate themselves from the other but couldn't as Buford took the largest lead of the first half at the start when it scored the game's first six points.
The Jackets countered by scoring eight of the next 10 points to tie the Wolves 8-8 on a basket byNorman, who scored 12 points before halftime.
Savannah led 12-10 after one quarter and led throughout the early moments of the second period before Williams drilled a 3-pointer to put Buford back up 17-15 with 4:29 to play before halftime.
The teams were tied twice more before the end of the opening half. With the score tied 22-22 as the final minute drew near, Savannah scored the final four points of the half and had a chance to go up by the largest margin of the opening half but missed a 3-point attempt and settled for a 26-22 lead at intermission.