BUFORD — It's nothing new for the Buford girls basketball team. It's actually more like an old habit, maybe even a routine and definitely an expectation by the fanbase.
The Lady Wolves have won seven state championships since 2009 and played for two more in that span and today, they'll play for a historic fourth straight Class 5A championship.
No. 1-ranked Buford (30-1, Region 8-5A No. 1 seed) will battle undefeated and second-ranked Kell (32-0, Region 7-5A No. 1 seed) at the Macon Centreplex on Friday. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. and can be heard live on AM 550/FM 102.9 WDUN.
Buford coach Gene Durden has led the Lady Wolves to those seven state titles since and although one might think it gets old, Durden answers the question with one simple word: "no."
"We talk about it a little bit that every season is different and every team is different," he said. "So it's always a challenge. It doesn't matter how many kids you have coming back or how many returners you have, you're going to be faced with different obstacles. So every year is exciting and just something new."
The Lady Wolves, led by Region 8-5A Player of the Year Tate Walters, Blair Wallis, Katelyn Klein, Ashyia Willis and Tatum Ozment, are 69-0 against Class 5A opponents and have won 19 consecutive tournament games. And if the Lady Wolves beat Kell, seniors Walters and Klein will be the only class to graduate with four-straight titles. It also would be a program record for consecutive titles.
"It's been amazing," Walters said. "It's been such a good experience. They've all been different in some ways but all have been amazing. The culture that Coach Durden has instilled is why he's built such a good program."
Klein said playing in the state title game over the last four years has been a blessing.
"It's been produced by a lot of hard work and commitment," Klein said. "It's, honestly, one of the best things in my life right now. It's such an amazing experience because not a lot of people get to, first of all, go to one state championship, let alone go to four. So, a lot of it is a huge blessing, my teammates and the love we've built on the court."
Regardless of the excitement of playing for the program's eighth overall championship, the Lady Wolves will have their hands full with a young, quick Lady Longhorn team led by first-team all-region players freshman Crystal Henderson and senior Kya Williams.
Kell is averaging 61.5 points per game and is giving up 41.4 ppg, but it's new territory for the Lady Longhorns. Before this season, Kell had never reached past the second round.
Along with the scoring averages, Kell has proved they have fight, edging Carrollton, a team Buford beat in the quarterfinals, twice, while emerging unscathed from a tough Region 7-5A.
"They're athletic, very confident, very young, but they don't let youth be a factor," Durden said about Kell. "They shoot the ball really well. If you let them get on a roll, you can have some problems. They're 32-0, so they're doing something right. We're just going to go out there and play our style of basketball. We feel like it's going to be a lot more about what we do than what Kell does. They've also got to prepare for us."
Buford is anchored by a vicious full-court defense and will control the tempo of the game with it. But that's not all they have in their arsenal. They are pretty good in the half-court as well, with a stingy sagging man-to-man defense and offensive attack that will force the opponents out of position.
And it's no surprise that defense is Durden's first key to a win against Kell.
"We're going to have to play great defense," Durden said. "We have to make their shooters take hard shots and keep them off the boards. They've got three athletic kids that play on the backboard. They like to press, too, so we've got to take care of the basketball. It's going to be a real interesting game because a lot of times they're trying to do what we do, so we've got to figure out who's going to do it better."
The Road to Macon: Buford beat Grady 76-44, Wayne County 76-49, Carrollton 58-47 and Woodland 52-30. Kell beat Lithonia 58-26, Bainbridge 66-40, Jones County 64-54, and Eagle’s Landing 60-55.
Notables: It's the second straight year Buford will play an undefeated team in the Class 5A title game. They beat Villa Rica, 67-59, last season. Buford has played for the state championship five times in the last seven seasons, winning four -- 7 since 2009.