MACON — There was plenty of ebb and flow during the Class AAAAA state girls basketball championship game between Buford and Kell.
In the end, it was the No. 1 state-ranked Wolves who were able to stem the tide, though it wasn’t until Crystal Henderson’s 3-pointer at the buzzer bounced harmlessly off the backboard that the second-ranked Longhorns rolled away with the current and Buford was able to celebrate a 66-63 win Friday at the Macon Centreplex.
“I just thought it was game of spurts both ways,” said Buford coach Gene Durden, who saw his team capture its fourth straight state title and fifth in the last six seasons. “It was just one of those grind games. (Kell) basically made some plays, and we made bigger plays at the end. It was a great game for the fans to watch, and I’m just glad we came out on top.
“(You can win tough games) when you can grind at the end, and we ran some time off the clock and made some free throws. What was amazing was (Kell) made some huge plays and shots when we made a run, and then our kids were resilient in coming back to make plays of their own.”
Tate Walters (18 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals) and Katelyn Klein (9 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 7 steals) were paramount in making many of those key plays down the stretch and helping Buford (31-1) claim its eighth overall state title and hand Kell (32-1) its first loss of the season.
More important than their numbers was the role the duo played in helping the Wolves keep their poise when the Longhorns simply wouldn’t go away.
“The big thing about our program is being able to out-tough and outlast other programs,” Klein said. “That comes from practice, keeping going and always keep pushing yourself, being mentally tough. … When you put yourself in those tough situations, you can get through it.”
Buford’s defense was just as tough as it has been all year, though maybe a little less consistent, in the first half, harassing Kell into 17 turnovers in the first 16 minutes.
But the Wolves had a few issues offensively, especially missing several layups and making just 9 of 14 free-throw attempts.
“We’ve always had trouble finishing just because we’re always playing so fast at a different level,” Klein said. “But when you keep pushing it and keep executing, you get the points you need.”
Meanwhile, Kell was able to withstand the defensive storm and come up with two big spurts to help come back from an early 10-3 deficit in the first quarter, and then an 18-10 hole after a pair of Walters free throws 40 seconds into the second quarter.
With Henderson penetrating the Buford trap and finding open shooters, the Longhorns were able to run off 16 straight points, led by six from Makyah Favors and four from Amaya Moss to vault into a 26-18 lead following a Kya Williams steal and jumper with 5:12 left in the first half.
But Buford managed a comeback of its own, sparked by renewed energy on defense, plus bette free-throw shooting as they were able to draw fouls and get to the line more.
An Ashyia Willis three-point play, two more free throws and a stickback by Walters and four straight points from Klein helped the Wolves end the half on an 11-3 run that left the game tied at 29-all heading into intermission.
It looked like Buford might finally take control several times during the second half.
First, Walters hit a pair of baskets to lead a 9-2 run that turned a one-point advantage with 5:36 left in the third quarter into a 47-39 lead — the biggest for either team in the game — by the 3:29 mark of the period.
But Kell answered with a 9-3 run of its own, keyed by Henderson, to pull back to within 50-48 by the end of the quarter.
Then with the Buford lead at 52-50, a pair of baskets by Tamori Plantin, her only four points of the game, plus a steal and a heads up assist by Klein when she drew the Longhorns defense to her an kicked out to Blair Wallis for a 3-pointer from the right corner pushed the Wolves’ lead back to 59-52 with 2:55 remaining.
But that’s when Henderson began to go to work, as the freshman driving down the lane an following with a 3-pointer from professional range to help keep Kell within shouting distance.
And after Buford built the lead back to six at 63-57 following a pair of Klein free throws with 53.8 seconds left, Henderson gave the Longhorns hope once again.
This time, she drew a foul from behind the arc and hit all three free throws with 33.5 seconds left to cut the Buford lead to 63-60.
Then she answered Willis’ two free throws with another off-balance 3-pointer — her 13th point of the fourth quarter on her way to a game-high 26 points — to pull the Longhorns to within 65-63 with just 10.5 seconds remaining.
Tate knew it was time for someone to step forward, and the senior Furman signee did so by cutting through the Kell press to receive the inbound pass before the five-second call and get fouled to go to the line.
“(Kell is) definitely relentless,” Walters said. “But one of our big focuses is poise and making sure to keep our emotions in check and know that they’re going to go on spurts, and it’s how we responded to that.”
Walters responded to hit the first free throw to make it a 66-63 game, but missed the second, giving Kell one last shot.
But she stayed with the play after Jada Green grabbed the rebound and handed off to Henderson and harassed the freshman all the way down the court, forcing her into an off-balance attempt to tie the game that was off the mark as the buzzer sounded, sending the Wolves into celebration.
Besides the heroics of the seniors, Buford also got 13 points, three assists and three steals from Willis, plus 12 points from Wallis, all on 3-pointers.
Moss joined Henderson in double figures for Kell with 14 points and pulled down five rebounds, while Williams had a solid game with eight points.