BUFORD -- It's the little things that matter most in the biggest moments and for Buford, it was the one mistake that made the biggest impact in its deciding Game 3 against Cartersville Tuesday in the Class AAA semifinals.
A slow roller that got past first base to open the door to a five-run second inning for the Hurricanes, who were able to ride that to a 7-5 victory over the Wolves and a berth in the state championship series.
Cartersville won the series 2-1. Buford won Game 1, 4-0, and the 'Canes answered with a 7-2 win in Game 2 to stay alive.
The Hurricanes, who are the defending Class AAA champions, will take on Blessed Trinity beginning on Saturday with a chance to defend their title.
It was a tough ending for Buford, which was ranked No. 1 most of the season and won a tough three-game series over No. 2 Pike County in the quarterfinals.
"We've been good defensively all year but the one mistake hurt us today," Buford coach Tony Wolfe said. "Cartersville has a great program and just never went away. They were just a little bit better than us today."
Cartersville coach Stuart Chester had the look afterwards of someone who just got an unexpected Christmas gift.
"No one gave us a chance to win anything. Not the region; not get in the playoffs; certainly not to get back to the title series," he said. "These guys are just a bunch of overachievers. They don't know the word quit. I'm still a little surprised we made it, to be honest with you."
Four of the five runs were unearned and erased what had been a quick 3-0 lead for Buford after its first two innings at the plate. With Kevin Coulter on the mound, the road looked clear for the Wolves to advance to their first state title series since 2011.
"We definitely felt good with the early lead," Wolfe said. "But we knew (Cartersville) wouldn't quit. They made some big plays to get back in it."
In the Cartersville second, Cameron Neal walked to begin the inning and then moved to third on a the error to put runners at the corners with no one out. David Darnell knocked in Neal with a groundout to short to cut the lead to 3-1 and Garrett Rutledge walked and Mark Quattlebaum followed with a single to left to load the bases.
Lane Wilson followed with a sacrifice fly to right to cut the lead to 3-2. After Coulter walked Clifton Dempsey, Brent Arnold followed with a bases-clearing triple past a diving Patrick Burnette in center for a 5-3 Cartersville lead. Coulter was then replaced by Keyton Gibson, who got out of the inning with no further damage.
Coulter only gave up two hits in 1 2/3 innings but walked four.
The Wolves had chances to close the gap in the top of the third. The 'Canes' Riley Richards reached over the centerfield fence to take away a home run from Austin Upshaw for the second out and Nick Wilhite reached on an error and stole second but was left stranded.
"That was a big play because we would have gotten some momentum back. You have to tip your hat to them for making the big plays," Wolfe said.
Cartersville answered in the bottom of the inning. Quattlebaum knocked in Richards, who walked with one out, to make it 6-3 but the 'Canes left the bases loaded with a chance to blow the game open.
The Wolves inched closer in the top of the fourth when Austin Wilhite belted a two-out, two-run home run to pull them within 6-5. But, Cartersville would extend the lead to 7-5 in the fifth on a second Mayo sacrifice fly.
Gibson went 2 2/3 innings allowing just two runs on three hits. Griffin Jolliff went the final 1 2/3 innings retiring five of the six batters he faced.
"Keyton and Griffin both gave us a chance to get back in it and I was real pleased with their efforts," Wolfe said.
Wilson was solid for the 'Canes going five innings and allowing just the Wilhite home run and striking out five in five innings of work to get the win. Cartersville then brought in Game 2 winner Garrett Rutledge in the seventh to try and close out the game.
In the seventh, Austin Wilhite legged out an infield single with one out and Buford had two shots with the tying run at the plate. But Higginbotham struck out and Joey Bart popped out to end the game and the season for the Wolves.
"Our guys didn't quit and I'm proud of how they handled the adversity," Wolfe said. "
The Wolves got the fast start in the bottom of the first. Jake Higginbotham singled with one out and then Austin Upshaw blooped a hit into right with two outs to put runners at first and second. Nick Wilhite then laced a double to the centerfield wall driving in Higginbotham and Upshaw for a 2-0 lead.
Coulter got some help from his defense in the bottom of the first inning. After issuing a one-out walk to Arnold, Upshaw picked a hot shot by Elliott Anderson at short to start an inning-ending double play.
Buford continued to add on in the second. Puckett doubled to center to start the inning, chasing 'Canes starter Jack Mayo for Wilson. Patrick Burnette reach on an error by the catcher and then Austin Wilhite drove in Puckett with a fielder's choice groundout for a 3-0 lead.
The bottom of the Cartersville order arguably was the difference. The Nos. 7-9 hitters for the 'Canes were 3-for-4 with two sacrifice flies, three RBI, and scored three runs as a group.