COLUMBUS — Few people believe in the philosophy that defense wins championships more than Buford girls basketball coach Gene Durden.
Based on their performance in their Class AAAAA state semifinal game against Southwest DeKalb, few teams buy into such a philosophy than the Wolves, who forced the Panthers into 34 turnovers and had a 10 different players with at least one steal in a 51-38 victory Saturday at Columbus State University’s Frank G. Lumpkin Jr. Center.
Tate Walters scored a game-high 21 points, pulled down seven rebounds and added three steals, while Ebony Grant finished with six points and 12 rebounds and Preston Reid had a huge all-around game with six points, four rebounds, four assists and five steals.
It was quite apparent on which end of the court Buford (28-2) earned its shot at a third straight state championship next Friday at 6 p.m. against either Villa Rica or Columbia at the Macon Centreplex.
“We talk about it all the time that you’re going to have some games in the (state) tournament that you’ve got to win ugly,” Durden said. “You’ve got to grind them out. And guess what? We did that. We grinded out the whole time, made sure we stayed and played great defense, and that gave us a chance to win.”
Buford’s defense was on display from the opening tip, with the Wolves forcing the Panthers into nine first-quarter turnovers.
Yet despite that work and jumping out to a quick 7-0 lead on a driving layup by Reid and a 3-pointer and steal and layup in the game’s first 1:31, Buford had trouble adding onto the lead thanks to several missed layups and a dismal 18 of 37 night from the free throw line.
Southwest DeKalb (24-7) wasn’t about to let miss that opportunity to get back into the game, even after Buford built a 19-9 lead following a Walters free throw with 4:56 left in the first half.
Raven Thurman led an 11-3 run over the final 4:30 of the half, including 9-0 over the last 3:38, to pull to save the Wolves’ lead down to just 22-20 by intermission.
Still, the Wolves maintained their poise and confidence.
“There are always going to be runs,” Reid said. “(Southwest DeKalb was) going to make a run, but I knew we’d come out (in the second half) and we could pull through. “
With the lead still just two points at 26-24, Buford answered with a run of its own, with Blair Wallis scoring all four of her points on the night spark an 8-0 run that pushed the advantage back to 10 points at 34-24 with 3:05 left.
Southwest DeKalb had one more run left in it, with Adrieanna Brownlee hitting a bucket with 37 seconds left in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 35-28 by the end of the period, and then added the last of her team-best 13 points on the day four seconds into the fourth to pull the Panthers to within 35-30.
Once again, the Wolves had a response with Reid feeding Grant for a layup the next trip up the court and Sarah Viti hitting 1 of 2 free throws to push the lead back to a more comfortable 38-30 with 6:58 to play.
Buford then held Southwest DeKalb at bay by getting to the foul line with major frequency over the remainder of the game.
Though they had trouble there all game, the Wolves were playing well enough defensively that 1 of 2 trips were enough, as they hit 12 of 22 from the line the rest of the way.
Reid finally became the first Buford player to hit two in a row at the stripe with 4:53 left, and Walters knocked down 5 of 9 in the final 3:07 as the Wolves slowly, but surely pulled away.
In addition to defensive work of the whole squad with steals, Buford also owned a 44-32 advantage on the boards that dramatically helped counter the big night from Brownlee, who added six rebounds to her totals, and Thurman, who finished with 11 points and six boards.