MACON — Buford girls basketball coach Gene Durden has said all season that his team itself was the real star.
The Lady Wolves proved it Friday night, shining their brightest as a collective whole in a remarkable 67-59 win over previously-unbeaten Villa Rica to capture the Class 5A state title at the Macon Coliseum.
While junior Tate Walters poured in a team-high 16 points, 10 different Lady Wolves scored, 10 had at least one rebound, seven had at least one steal, they took 13 more shots, forced 29 turnovers, and outrebounded the high-powered and taller Lady Wildcats 38-34 for the game.
“A total team effort,” Durden said. “We have operated as the team being the superstar all season. They just did a great job all around tonight.”
Walters did not shy away from the magnitude of the accomplishment. She said the doubters came out in force as far back as the summer to say the run would end in 2019 after the Lady Wolves (29-2) graduated 10 seniors, including star Tory Ozment, who is now at Michigan State.
“This was huge for us,” she said. “We were doubted even before the season started. We definitely used that as a motivator. It just feels great to be able to do this.”
For Durden, the difference, once again, was a tenacious defensive effort. They had 14 total steals while only turning the ball over 17 times and hounded the Lady Wildcats (32-1) into a season-high 29 turnovers. They held Kentucky-signee Deasia Merrill to just 14 points and 11 rebounds after she had been dominating her competition all season. She did have 8 assists but also had 8 turnovers and was just 4-of-13 from the field.
“Our defense was really good, especially in the second half,” he said. “Abbi Perkins played outstanding defense at the end. We did a good job on Deasia. The key is that this group has been battled-tested because of the schedule we played and it showed. Just so proud of them.”
It was a high-intensity first half that did not go without a small measure of controversy. Buford took the opening lead on a Ashyia Willis floater but the Lady Wildcats answered with five straight points, including a 3-pointer from Aliyah Hindsman with 4:58 left.
In between, the Buford bench was warned for having too many people standing, which would come into play late in the half. Merrill also picked up her second foul of the opening quarter with Villa Rica leading 5-3.
Buford immediately went on a 7-0 run, capped by a pair of free throws from Preston Reid. The Wildcats, however, answered that with a 12-1 spurt into the second quarter, including a pair of 3-pointers from Tee Windom.
Buford pulled even at 18 on 3-pointers from Casey Jones and Blair Wallis, but the Lady Wildcats answered answered with a 10-2 run and a 28-20 lead using fastbreak opportunities as Merrill launched several home run balls to open teammates on the other end for easy layups. The run was capped by two Merrill free throws after the Buford bench was whistled for a technical for too many people standing.
But the Lady Wolves did not go away getting a 9-3 run, capped by a Sara Viti trey to get within 31-29 before Hannah Goen gave the Lady Wildcats a 33-29 halftime lead.
“I think we were a little shell-shocked in the first half,” Durden said. “Ashyia did a nice job of keeping us in it. I just told them they needed to settle down in the second half.”
In the third quarter Villa Rica opened up a 40-36 lead on a Merrill basket but a Preston Reid steal and layup capped a quick 5-0 run to reclaim the lead and back-to-back Walters' 3-pointers capped a 13-3 run for a 49-43 lead late in the period. The run was powered by five Villa Rica turnovers in a three minute stretch.
The Lady Wildcats got as close as 53-51 on a pair of Windom free throws early in the fourth quarter but a Perkins free throw capped an 8-0 Buford run for a 61-51 lead and Villa Rica never got closer than five the rest of the way.
“Any championship is huge,” Durden said. “But for this group it is just was a testament of hard work and preseverance. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more proud of a group of girls.”
Wallis finished with 11 points and Casey Jones had 9 points for Buford. Willis had 8 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals and Perkins finished with 6 points, 4 rebounds, and a steal. Reid, Ebony Grant, and Tatum Ozment all had 4 points with Grant also pulling down a team-high 7 rebounds and swiping a team-high 4 steals. Reid had 3 steals.
Windom poured in a game-high 21 points to lead Villa Rica but had zero assists and 6 turnovers at the point. Dekya Cofield added 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists for the Lady Wildcats.