Staff Photo: John Bohn Buford's Camille Anderson (23) shows her emotions after Buford was defeated by Lovett 52-42 in the girls Class AA state basketball championship game Saturday in Macon.
Lovett VS Buford
Lovett and Buford face off in the Class AA state championship game on March 10, 2012 in Macon.
MACON -- For the first time in the last four years, championship Saturday just wasn't the Buford girls basketball team's day.
The Wolves spent much of this year's Class AA championship game trying to climb out of an early hole against Region 6-AA rival Lovett.
But despite nearly reaching the top, they eventually fell victim to a pride of hungry Lions, who used a big third-quarter surge to take the lead for good before holding off one last Buford rally to dethrone the three-time defending champs with a 52-42 win Saturday at the Macon Centreplex.
Tatianna Jackson scored a game-high 18 points to lead three players in double figures as Lovett (28-5) not only avenged two losses to Buford (25-8) earlier this season -- including the region title game last month -- but also claimed the school's first state title in girls basketball.
"We knew that we could beat (Buford)," Lovett coach Liz Kennedy said. "We knew we had to do everything we could to beat them, but we knew we could beat them.
"But even with a minute left in the ball game, they're so good, I was like, 'It's not over.'"
But Buford's reign as champion is over despite 14 points from Kaela Davis, and the Wolves can point to any number of reasons as to why.
The first was a scoring drought that lasted almost the entire first quarter.
While Lovett didn't get on the scoreboard until Sydney Umeri gave the Lions a 2-0 lead with a stickback 3:26 into the game, it took even longer for Buford.
MacKenzie Darrah's 3-pointer with 49 seconds left were the Wolves' only points of the opening frame, which ended with them trailing 7-3.
"We looked timid on offense," Buford coach Gene Durden said. "We dug ourselves a hole in the first quarter, and we never recovered."
The Wolves did look on the way to recovery in the second quarter, with increased pressure defensively getting the running game started.
Kallie Case came off the bench to hit a pair of baskets to spark a 9-1 run over the opening half of the second quarter, leaving the Wolves with a 12-8 lead following Case's transition layup with 3:56 left in the first half.
However, Lovett countered with six straight points, four from Tatianna Jackson, to vault back into as much as a 15-12 lead before Kristina Nelson's stickback with eight seconds left sent Buford into intermission trailing just 15-14.
It was in the third quarter that Lovett began to make its move.
The Lions shook off Buford's pressure and worked the ball around the perimeter, where sharpshooters like Jackson and Sydney Umeri, who had 13 points and seven rebounds on the day, were waiting.
Umeri knocked down a trio of 3-pointers among her 11 third-quarter points, while Jackson added eight points as Lovett outscored Buford 22-14 in the period and took as much as a 12-point lead before the Wolves closed to within 37-28 heading into the fourth quarter.
"We had to press to try to force a more up-tempo situation," Durden said. "But they did a good job of kicking it to the corner and hitting some big-time threes."
The Buford pressure finally began to pay some dividends in the fourth quarter by forcing Lovett into five of its 13 turnovers on the game in the final frame.
Behind a spirited surge from Davis, who scored nine of her points in the fourth, the Wolves slowly began to close the gap.
Davis' layup off a feed from Darrah capped a 9-4 run that pulled Buford to within 41-37 with 4:02 to play.
But fate and Lovett's resolve rose to obstruct the Wolves' comeback effort.
That point was no better demonstrated than a key sequence a little more than a minute later.
Darrah and senior Andraya Carter each got a hand on a Lovett entry pass into the lane, but the ball bounced right to Jackson, who hit the uncontested layup to pushed the Lions' lead back to six at 43-37 with 2:47 remaining.
"We knew it was our year when that ball started (bouncing) around and all of the sudden, it would land in somebody's lap for a bunny under the bucket," Kennedy said.
But if it seemed Lovett received a bit of a lucky bounce on that play, Christen Johnson helped the Lions make their own luck on the next possession just 32 seconds later, sweeping in from the offside to grab a rebound and score on a stickback to extend the lead to 45-37 with 2:15 left.
Johnson, who would finish with 14 points and 10 rebounds, converted two more stickbacks over the next 1:06, the first after Buford had closed to within five to put Lovett on the brink of the title.
"She was at the right place at the right time," Kennedy said of Johnson. "And I think Tatianna blazed in there one time to get a loose ball. They've been working on this four years. They finished it."
It was Jackson who applied much of the finishing touches by hitting three free throws in the final 30.1 seconds to secure the title for the Lions and end Buford's reign.
It was a tough pill to swallow for the Wolves, especially seniors like Tennessee-signee Carter, who has played a major role in the previous three titles.
"I told them (in the lockerroom) that everything happens for a reason," Durden said. "Right now, we don't understand, but maybe this is something we'll learn from."Carter, who is still recovering from an offseason knee injury suffered last spring and battled through an injured shoulder suffered last month, finished her career with four points, three rebounds, two assists and three steals, while Nelson had a strong day with nine points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots for Buford.