Buford’s Rakim Lubin (14) gets fouled by Blessed Trinity’s Conner O’Neill during the Wolves victory over the Titans in the second round of the Class AAA state tournament on Tuesday night. (Photo: David McGregor)
BUFORD — It has been relatively smooth sailing for the Buford boys basketball team this season as the Wolves put together an 18-game winning streak that included an easy first-round win in the Class AAA state tournament.
All that changed Tuesday night when Blessed Trinity came calling in the second round.
But Buford showed some resiliency and grit as the Wolves pulled out a 45-40 win over the visiting Titans and now move into the quarterfinals on Thursday to take on the St. Pius-Cartersville winner.
And the Wolves did it without D’Marcus Simonds, the player of the year for Region 7-AAA.
Simonds, who was suspended for the game for what school officials termed as a school-related issue, did not dress out and was not with the team for the game.
But the Wolves hope to have Simonds back for Thursday’s game.
Meanwhile, Buford (25-5) pulled it together against a patient and poised Blessed Trinity team and got some solid contributions from three seniors to take the hard-earned five-point victory.
“We came together as a team,” said Buford head coach Allen Whitehart. “I told the guys beforehand that it’s not going to be one person. It’s going to everybody. You don’t know who’s going to get the call.”
Rakim Lubin stayed busy down on the blocks and generated 15 points, including 7 of 11 from the free throw line, to go along with five rebounds and two blocked shots.
Guards Matt McMorris and Justin Edwards also picked up the scoring gap left by Simonds and combined for 24 points for Buford.
But, more importantly, they were solid in the fourth quarter by going a combined 6-for-6 from the charity stripe when Blessed Trinity was nipping at the Wolves’ heels.
McMorris finished with 14 points, five assists and two rebounds while connecting on a pair of free throws with 18.4 seconds left to give Buford a 43-30 lead.
“Matt had a great game for us,” said Whitehart. “And this is the first time this season that Rakim Lubin has been a leader for us. He was the one pulling everybody in and telling them, ‘Guys, it’s not over, stay focused.’”
Edwards had 10 points, three rebounds and two assists for the Wolves and salted the game away with two free throws with four seconds remaining to give Buford its final five-point margin.
“Justin broke his ankle early in the year and he’s been grinding to get back,” said Whitehart. “He finally came through and closed the game for us. He’s a senior leader and been here for four years.”
Blessed Trinity (23-7) was led by 10 points each from Connor O’Neill and Garrett Michael while Patrick Lamar had five points and five assists.
O’Neill also collected five rebounds and blocked a pair of shots for the Titans.
Buford opened up the low-scoring, grind-it-out game by taking a 9-6 lead after the first quarter and went to the half with a 21-18 advantage.
But after Buford went ahead 25-20 midway through the third quarter, Blessed Trinity went on a 10-0 run to take a 30-25 lead before the Wolves pulled to within one at 30-29 heading to the final eight minutes.
After a couple of lead changes early in the final quarter, Buford regained the lead for good at 35-32 on Taylor Mills’ three-pointer – his only points of the game – with 4:43 left.
Buford led by as many as six at 41-35 with 1:18 to go, but Blessed Trinity scored five straight and crept to within one at 41-40 with 29 seconds left on a steal and layup by Cam Johnson.
But McMorris and Edwards sealed the deal for Buford and Lamar’s potential game-tying three-pointer missed with four seconds left to send the Wolves on to the next round.