MACON — Warmups for Friday night’s Class AAAAA state championship game had barely started, and Buford’s girls basketball players went through their typical routine.
That included guarding each other as hard as they would an opponent looking for a game-winning shot. All the girls were breathing heavily and glistening with sweat some 10 minutes before tipoff, showing the hustle and conditioning that has become the program’s staple.
“Coach (Gene) Durden says we have to go hard for 47 minutes because warmups count as part of the 32 for the game,” junior Tate Walters said. “Plus you get out the jitters because it’s a big environment, you want to sweat it out and be ready to play.”
Top-ranked Buford’s training methods and playing style paid off against previously unbeaten and second-ranked Villa Rica in Friday’s title game as it wore down the Wildcats for 67-59 victory. The championship was the Wolves’ third in a row, fourth in a five-year span and seventh under Durden.
His team forced Villa Rica into 35 turnovers, including 12 in fourth quarter, as the Indians ran out of steam and players — two starters fouled out less than two minutes into the fourth quarter.
“You could tell going into the third and fourth quarter (Villa Rica’s players) got tired,” Durden said. “The decision-making was tired. I was really pleased with the way our kids kept going, kept grinding. They faced a lot of adverse conditions in a lot of ways. We came out of it and just kept doing what we do.”
The adversity included a large, loud opposing crowd, and 6-foot-2 Kentucky signee Deasia Merrill, who presented a major obstacle for a Buford roster lacking in height. Merrill finished with 11 points and 14 rebounds, but didn’t dominate offensively. Tee Windom gave Buford the most problems, leading Villa Rica (32-1) with 21 points and five 3-pointers.
“Surround (Merrill) with three people,” Durden said of the defensive plan. “The thing was, they didn’t put her on the block. So I was happy.”
The Wolves (29-2), who won their 12th straight, also trailed by two points after the first quarter, then by four at halftime. Their shooting was off for two quarters, then they made 8 of 15 shots in the third quarter.
They led 49-47 after three quarters thanks to a 13-3 run that began midway through the third on a 3-pointer by Blair Wallis. Wallis had 11 points, including eight in the first half to keep the Wolves close, and paced a Buford bench that outscored Villa Rica’s reserves 26-6. The bench also chipped in a 3-pointer from Sara Viti and six rebounds from Katelyn Klein.
Preston Reid (four points, three steals, three rebounds, three assists) followed with a steal and a basket, and Ashyia Willis (eight points, five assists, three rebounds) avoided a near turnover in the backcourt before going end to end for a basket.
Walters capped the run with a pair of 3-pointers. She finished with a team-high 16 points to go with four steals, four rebounds and three assists. She also took two charges.
“Tate is our leader,” Durden said. “Tate is the kid that everybody looks up to. She’s the one we always need to make big plays. She’s made big plays all year long. Tate Walters is a winner. She’ll find a way to get it done.”
Tatum Ozment’s layup to open the fourth was followed by two free throws from Walters with 6:16 remaining. Those free throws came when Villa Rica’s second starter fouled out early in the quarter.
Things unraveled quickly from there for the Wildcats, allowing the Buford lead to balloon to double figures. Villa Rica got within five points with slightly more than a minute left, but back-to-back baskets by Abbi Perkins (six points, four rebounds) sealed the win.
“Their bench was not deep and we knew that,” Walters said. “We thought we could wear them down and get what we wanted at the end.”
Buford’s state title also happened with a young roster that featured only three seniors — Casey Jones, Ebony Grant and Reid. Jones had nine points in the win and Grant had four points and team highs of seven rebounds and four steals despite battling foul trouble.
“It feels great (to win state),” Jones said. “Nobody thought we’d be here because we lost 10 seniors (off last season’s championship team), but we did it. … It’s a great legacy. They’re going to get one more next year, too.”
Jones and her fellow seniors exit as champions, a fitting reward for their hard work, their coach said.
“I thought our kids did a great job of fighting, scrapping, doing what they had to do to win,” Durden said. “If anybody would have told us we would be here after losing 10 seniors, I would have told them they were crazy. The kids are so resilient. They’ve done everything we’ve asked out of them. They’ve sacrificed so much. I’m so proud of them.”