COLUMBUS — Great teams know how to win an ugly game.
They won’t come any uglier than Saturday’s Class 5A girls semifinal between Buford and Southwest DeKalb at Columbus State University’s Lumpkin Center.
The two teams combined for 56 turnovers, shot just 23-for-49 combined from the free throw line, were only 4-of-13 on 3-pointers combined, yet the Lady Wolves used that to their advantage in taking a 51-38 victory to move into their third consecutive Class 5A state championship game.
“We tell our group that all the time,” Buford coach Gene Durden said. “You have to be able to win ugly games when you’re not executing on offense. Defense is our bread-and-butter and they played tremendous today. Certainly, we can be better on offense but when we play defense like that takes a lot of pressure off other parts of the game.”
The Lady Wolves (28-2) will take on Villa Rica, a 57-50 winner over Columbia in the other semifinal, at 6 p.m. in Macon next Friday for the state title.
The Lady Panthers (24-7) had almost as many turnovers (34) as points but Buford was only able to turn those into 18 points as Southwest DeKalb forced 22 Buford miscues. Nearly a dozen times the teams swapped turnovers on consecutive possessions as they tried to out-defense the other.
SWD was held 20 points below its season average while Buford managed to score 13 points above the 38 points allowed by SWD during the playoffs.
It wasn’t just one person for Buford as 10 different players had at least one steal
“These girls only know one way to play, and that’s to play defense so that’s what we expect from them,” Durden said. “The young kids played last year against a great group of seniors, one of the best groups in the state, every day and they have done a great job this year.”
It was a brutal defensive battle almost from the opening tip. The Lady Wolves never trailed using a 7-0 spurt, highlighted by a Tate Walters 3-pointer, to open the game, fueled by three early SWD turnovers.
But the Lady Panthers got their defense going forcing four straight Buford turnovers and using a 7-3 run to get within 10-7. Buford took a 12-7 lead at the end of the first quarter as the two teams combined to force 16 turnovers but could only convert them into 9 total points between them.
In the second quarter, the Lady Wolves capped a 10-2 run with a Walters free throw and led 22-11 on a Sara Viti trey with 4:14 left. But the Panthers again turned up its defensive pressure forcing four late Buford miscues and closing out the half on a 9-0 run to trail just 22-20 at halftime.
Both teams finished with 14 first-half turnovers. Buford converted those into just 7 points while the Lady Panthers only scored 8 points off the Buford miscues.
In the second half, SWD trimmed the lead to 26-24 in the early moments of the third quarter on a Jayla Kimbrough basket. But Buford responded with an 8-0 run, fueled by three consecutive Lady Panthers turnovers for a 34-24 lead.
SWD got as close as 35-30 on an Adrieanna Brownlee basket to open the fourth quarter but the Lady Wolves slowly pulled away over the next five minutes at the free throw line. Buford hit 11-of-18 free throws over the final 4:53 after going just 8-for-21 over the first three quarters.
“Again, it wasn’t a pretty offensive game but for us, the key was on the defensive end and we took them out of their rhythm,” Durden said.
Walters finished with 21 points to pace Buford. Preston Reid had 6 points to go with 4 assists and 3 steals. Ebony Grant also had 6 points, 3 assists, and 4 steals for the Lady Wolves.
Brownlee led SWD with 13 points. Kimbrough had 8 points for the Lady Panthers. Leading scorers Raven Thurman and Lanee Edwards, who came in averaging nearly 23 points combined, were held to just 10 combined points for SWD.