COLUMBUS — From a simple perspective of the score, Buford’s boys only trailed once during their Class AAAAA state semifinal game against Southwest DeKalb.
However, the No. 1 state-ranked Wolves had to earn their way into the championship round with a 59-50 victory Saturday at Columbus State University’s Frank G. Lumpkin Jr. Center.
Donell Nixon knocked down six 3-pointers on his way to a team-high 20 points, while Marcus Watson added 14 points, nine rebounds and three assists.
Rebounding, defense and overall toughness played just as big a role in helping Buford (28-2) hold off the third-ranked Panthers (24-7) and their four-star guard K.D. Johnson and move back to the state title game for the second time in the last three seasons.
“It’s not where we expect to be (every year), it’s where we want to be,” said Buford coach Eddie Martin, who will send the Wolves against either No. 7 Fayette County or No. 8 Lithonia for a chance at his ninth career coaching title next Friday at 8 p.m. at the Macon Centreplex. “I’m tickled to death to get there one more time. I can’t say enough about how hard we played defensively and the way were rebounding right now. A team that good (as Southwest DeKalb), they’re not going to roll over and play dead. They’re very talented, they’re well coached and you knew they had one good run in them.
“The thing was, when they made their run, are you going to fold up the tent, or are you going to get your poise back? And I felt like we got our poise back.”
Johnson, a junior who boasts nearly a dozen major Division I college scholarship offers, got his points — 20 of them, including the game’s first points that gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead — and was a factor on the defensive end with seven rebounds and five steals.
However, Buford did a good job of keeping most everyone else on the Southwest DeKalb roster in check.
Meanwhile, Watson and Nixon went to work on the offensive end, with the former doing damage inside with his drives to the basket and in transition for 10 first-half points and the latter getting his production outside for a pair of 3-pointers and two free throws.
That production helped the Wolves build as much as an 11-point lead twice in the second quarter before taking a 29-19 advantage into halftime.
Then, they came charging out of the locker room with a steal and dunk by Watson and two more 3-pointers by Nixon to build their lead to as much as 15 at 37-22 with 5:05 left in the third quarter.
But Southwest DeKalb turned up its own defense and rode the firepower of Johnson and James Glisson III to pull back into the game.
Glisson’s dunk off a putback with 2:43 left in the quarter capped a 9-2 run that pulled the Panthers as close as 39-31.
With the score the same 1:10 later at the 1:33 mark after Watson found himself trapped along the sideline by two Southwest DeKalb defenders, Martin knew his team was in need of a boost and turned to one of his spark plugs.
“We ran a set to give (Nixon) a good look (at a 3-pointer),” Martin said. “And if he didn’t get it, then obviously we had some secondary stuff. But anytime you come out of a timeout, you’d better come out and run something.”
Nixon saw the opening he was looking for and got to the top of the key before draining his fifth shot from behind the arc to push back to double digits at 42-31 with 1:29 left in the period.
“I was wide open,” the 5-foot-9 Wingate signee said. “And my teammates hit me with a pass, and luckily, it went in. We had more poise after that. There was a two-minute stretch where we got out of our groove a little bit, but we came back great and had fun out there.”
Indeed, Bobby Miller got ahead of the Southwest DeKalb defense for a layup in transition just 34 seconds later with 55 seconds left in the quarter.
And while the Panthers got back to within 11 at 44-33 heading into the fourth quarter after Glisson’s basket with 28 seconds left in the third, the Wolves made sure that they would get no closer than eight the rest of the way. Eric Coleman, Miller and Watson each hit clutch free throws in the final 1:07 to help put the game away.
While Nixon, who also had team highs of four assists and three steals, and Watson led the way most of the day, Miller was perhaps the unsung hero for Buford with 14 points, most of which came on backdoor cuts to the basket, and Coleman chipped in nine points and seven rebounds.
Glisson joined Johnson in double figures for Southwest DeKalb with 12 points.