BUFORD — The rarity of what his team accomplished Tuesday night wasn’t lost on Lovejoy girls basketball coach Cedric King.
On the road at Buford City Arena, the Wildcats advanced to the Class AAAAAA Final Four with a 49-42 win over the host Wolves in a matchup of fierce, pressure defenses. The victory sends Lovejoy (20-5) into the state semifinals at Carrollton, while halting previously unbeaten Buford’s quest for a fifth straight state championship.
“It was a war,” King said. “Big ups to Buford. I always love (Buford coach) Gene (Durden). I love what Gene’s program is about. I love everything that they do. We strive to have that type of program and we will continue to strive. Gene is the definition of excellence. So first, big props to them. I couldn’t be more proud of that young group in (the Lovejoy locker room). Being freshmen and sophomores out there, and then a senior that never started or played those minutes with Mariah Spain, they executed the game plan. They fought through, went through adversity, ups and downs. I’m very proud of them.”
In the process, the Wildcats ended some eye-catching streaks.
Buford (26-1) saw a 35-game winning streak end — its last loss was Jan. 25, 2020 to Wesleyan — and lost for the first time in the state playoffs since Feb. 27, 2016, a semifinal loss to Americus-Sumter. The state playoff winning streak was up to 22 games before Lovejoy ended it.
The Wolves had won 57 of their last 58 games, and had a 144-8 record (94.7 winning percentage) over the last five seasons.
“First of all, I give Lovejoy all the credit,” Durden said. “They’ve got a great squad. They play a great schedule. They’re in a very tough region. They came in doing what they do well. It was a night where a lot of things for us that usually go well didn’t go well. I don’t let the kids make excuses and I’m not going to make excuses, but we’ve got to make a few plays here and there. We missed a lot of open shots and did some things we usually don’t do. It just came down to tonight wasn’t our night. It’s tough, but sometimes it happens that way.”
Buford fell behind quickly 9-2, but surged back and took its only lead on an Abbi Perkins putback to open the second quarter. Lovejoy answered by scoring the next six points, then it didn’t allow the hosts within a single possession the rest of the way. The lead grew to 14 points late in the third quarter before Blair Wallis made a 3-pointer in the waning seconds to get within 38-27 entering the fourth.
Prior to Wallis’ shot, Buford was 2-for-22 from 3-point range, a result in large part because of the pressure Lovejoy put on shooters. That was a major part of a two-pronged defensive focus by King and his staff, with the primary part focusing on Buford point guard Ashyia Willis.
“You’ve got to take (Willis) out of it,” King said. “When 10 came up the court, we were making sure 10 wasn’t going to beat us in dribble penetration. After 10, we were just in our base defense, us scrambling around, making sure we take away those 3s. You saw our girls flying out to take away those 3s. Basically, 10 was the engine that could. You’ve got to shadow 10, make her pass and once she passes, then you’ve got a chance to play them a little bit.
“We pressured the heck out of the sides. Once we got it into those girls' hands on the sides, we made them more decision-makers. They’ve been so used 10 and (Ava Grace Watson) making all the decisions. So get it out of their hands and make somebody else a decision-maker.”
Buford finally got some 3-pointers to fall and picked up its play defensively in the fourth quarter, putting together a rally that threatened the Lovejoy lead. A putback by Tatum Ozment and a 3-pointer by Viti opened the fourth quarter, and the Wolves twice cut the lead to four points later in the quarter on baskets by Watson. Between those two baskets, Lovejoy’s Layla Hood grabbed a big offensive rebound and scored on a putback.
Watson’s second shot trimmed the deficit to 44-40 with 2:18 left, but Buford couldn’t get any closer and Lovejoy finished out the win at the free-throw line.
“I was proud of them because we gave ourselves a chance to win (in the fourth),” Durden said. “Even though we didn’t play real well, we came back and gave ourselves a chance to come back and win. If we just make a couple of plays there. We gave up a couple of really tough offensive rebounds that we’ve got to get to finish that run and try to get the lead. You come to a night that you’ve got to make some plays and they did and we didn’t. … They put us on our heels a lot. They put us in bad decision-making situations.
“In those situations, you’ve got to make sure you can move the ball and you’ve got people coming to the ball. A lot of times we kind of froze and stood around. Their athletic quickness came into play with that, turning it over. You can’t make live ball turnovers with them. The other thing was we were just not swarming in the press like we usually do. I know they were one of the better athletic teams, but the thing was we were a step slow tonight and we didn’t have good positioning.”
Each team forced 17 turnovers.
Bryana Hardy led Lovejoy with 11 points and five rebounds, La’Nya Foster had 10 points and Bryanna Preston scored eight. Hood finished with four points and six rebounds, Keyra Peterson had six points and Asha Shareef scored four as the Wildcats stopped Buford’s phenomenal run of titles.
“Gene is what you strive to be, what he’s done for this program,” King said. “I love Gene. We talk constantly. He’s constantly mentoring me, just making me a better coach. I really appreciate what Gene’s done for me as a person, as a coach. It’s good anyway to go to the Final Four. To beat a team like Buford, that does put a little spice on it. But it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win the next one.”
Watson, a freshman, was the only consistent offense for Buford, finishing with team highs of 16 points and four steals. Ozment (six points, seven rebounds) and Perkins (two points, seven rebounds) provided a lift off the bench, and Wallis and Viti had six points each. Willis finished with three points, four rebounds and four assists, and Tamori Plantin had three points and six rebounds.
It was a painful ending to Buford’s amazing run, but Durden wants his players to look at the positives from an uncertain season that began with the program being shut down for more than a month because of COVID-19 issues.
“We’ve got to really focus on the things we accomplished, not the one thing we didn’t,” Durden said. “Man, to have a season with all these challenges is really big. We’re thankful just to be able to play basketball. We wish we could have ended up a little bit better, but we’ve got a lot to be thankful for. We had the first undefeated (regular) season we’ve ever had and we played a great schedule. We just didn’t finish it out.”