Posted: Saturday, March 10th 2012 at 11:00pm
Girls championships: Buford's drive for four upended by Lovett
By Morgan Lee Editor
MACON -- In the end, the wear and tear simply proved too much for Buford.
After weeks of battling injury and perhaps the toughest schedule in the state, the Lady Wolves ran out of steam in the Class AA title game, succumbing to Lovett 52-42 in Macon to end the Lady Wolves’ shot at a fourth straight state championship.
Buford stumbled early, scoring just three points in the first quarter and never fully recovered -- despite pulling as close as four points with 2:36 remaining.
“We’ve had such a physical and mental drain on us this season, and I think it just caught up with us,” said Lady Wolves coach Gene Durden, whose team played seven nationally-ranked opponents in 2011-12. “I’m proud of our kids because they gave themselves a chance to win and battled back into the game -- but we couldn’t get the breaks we needed down the stretch.”
Lovett came up with plenty, however -- though the Lady Lions worked hard for each one, especially inside. Senior center Christen Johnson provided the biggest spark for Lovett, scoring eight straight points over a 1:30 span to stem Buford’s final charge. Johnson converted on two putbacks and also had two loose balls knocked into her hands underneath the basket, which she converted into precious points -- the final coming with 1:09 left to put Lovett ahead 49-40.
Johnson’s scoring helped the Lady Lions finish with an 11-5 advantage over the final three minutes.
“We knew it was our year when the ball started dodging around and landing in someone’s lap for us,” said Lovett coach Liz Kennedy, whose team defeated Buford for the first time in three attempts this season. “We were under a lot of people’s radar coming into this game, but we knew could win. We knew we would have to do everything we could, but we could beat them.”
Buford did little to dissuade the Lady Lions (28-5) of their belief early.
The Lady Wolves (25-8) shot just 1-of-7 from the floor in the first quarter -- though their defense kept them in the contest, trailing 7-3. Buford’s offense then found its rhythm in the second quarter, firing off a 12-1 lead to pull ahead 12-8.
The advantage was short-lived, however, as Lovett pulled ahead 15-14 at the half and never trailed again -- the Lady Lions largest lead coming at 32-20 with 3:50 left in the third quarter, thanks in large part to Sydney Umeri’s three 3-pointers just after halftime. Tatianna Jackson also scored 13 of her game-high 19 points after the interval.
“We just never got over that start,” Durden said. “We came out and looked timid. We have the experience here, and I thought we’d be more relaxed. But we looked like the pressure was more on us. After you win so much and people start expecting you to win, that is a lot of pressure for 16-17-year-old kids to carry around.”
Buford did its best to fight back into the lead, putting up a 12-4 run at the start of the fourth quarter on baskets from Kaela Davis and Krsitina Nelson -- who took turns leading the Lady Wolves’ offense throughout. Davis’ lay-up, following a MacKenzie Darrah steal pulled Buford within 41-37 with 3:58, but -- despite some nervous moments -- Lovett found the response that took the Lady Lions to the title.
“Even with a minute left in the ball game I was sitting there saying it’s not over; it’s not over,” Kennedy said. “They’ve got such a good team, that we knew we couldn’t let up.”
Umeri finished with 13 points and eight rebounds for Lovett. Johnson also grabbed 11 rebounds.
“The No. 1 biggest difference in the game was their rebounding,” Durden said of a Lovett team that grabbed 27 rebounds, including 10 offensive rebounds -- Buford finished with 22 boards. “They did a great job with some second chance buckets.”
The outcome ended a stellar four-year career for several Buford seniors, including guard Andraya Carter.
The Tennessee-bound standout gritted her way through the contest, scoring four points and grabbing four rebounds despite battling a dislocated shoulder suffered just 12 days prior.
“Andraya’s got no reason to hang her head; she’s injured and gave it everything she had out there,” Durden said. “I’d rather have an injured Andraya Carter out there than a lot of healthy players.”
Buford should return a number of standouts next season, including Davis, Nelson and Darrah. And Durden hopes Saturday’s disappointment could prove a springboard for the 2012-13 campaign.
“Everything happens for a reason. Maybe this will give us the fire to work even harder,” Durden said.
There was plenty of fire early -- though little scoring -- on Saturday
Each team spent much of the first quarter sizing the other up and focusing on defense -- the result was nearly four minutes of scoreless basketball, Lovett finally getting on the board first on a jumper from Umeri with 4:13 left in the period.
The basket didn’t open the floodgates, however, and Buford’s lone basket of the first period came on a 3-pointer from MacKenzie Darrah with 48 seconds remaining.
Trailing 7-3, Buford began to find its offensive rhythm before halftime, opening the second quarter with a 9-1 run. Davis drained a 3-pointer, while Kallie Case provided two baskets for Buford, which sank four of its first five attempts of the period to take a 12-8 lead.
Despite the surge, the Lady Wolves could not pull away, as Lovett continued to keep Buford’s offense off balance, forcing 11 first half turnovers -- seven in the first quarter. The Lady Lions’ Julia Selman also nailed a 3-pointer with 52 seconds left before halftime to help Lovett take a 15-14 advantage into the interval.
The Lady Lions grabbed control of the contest at the start of the third quarter, as Umeri and Jackson each buried 3-pointers to spark a 15-4 run and a 32-20 Lady Lions lead with 3:50 left in the period. Yet the Lady Wolves battled their way back into the game underneath, as Nelson and Davis each scored inside to close within 37-28 at the start of the fourth quarter.
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