There will be a new champion among the GHSA’s Class 5A boys basketball teams this year.
Despite a furious comeback in the game’s final minutes, defending champ and top-seeded Buford High lost a 79-75 thriller against No. 3 seed Miller Grove on Thursday, Feb. 22, at Buford City Arena.
“We knew this would be a tough ballgame,” Wolves coach Eddie Martin said. “(Miller Grove) was no slouch. They were actually the No. 1 seed from their region heading into the region tournament but came out as the third team.
“We knew they would come out and play with all the tradition that’s on their side. We thought it’d be a battle to the end, just like it was.”
Junior guard Maurice Harvey had a game-high 31 points for the Wolverines (19-7), who were Class 5A semifinalists last season and won a state championship in 2016 after claiming six straight titles from 2009-14.
Buford junior forward Marcus Watson scored 26 points, including a pair of late 3-pointers that kept the Wolves (24-5) around, even after they trailed by double digits with about three and a half minutes to play. Classmate Donell Nixon recorded all 13 of his points in the fourth quarter as Buford clawed within two points in the final seconds.
The Wolves entered Thursday’s game as the unanimous No. 1-ranked team in Class 5A, while Miller Grove enjoyed a top-four ranking across the board even as a third-seeded squad.
From the opening tip, it looked like a battle between two of the state’s best teams.
They went back and forth in the first quarter, which ended in a 17-all tie. But Buford began to pull away in the second period, leading by as many as 10 points before Harvey’s late three-point play made it 38-31 at halftime.
Though it took a decent lead into the break, Martin still lamented his team giving up too many easy baskets and struggling in the rebounding battle, in which the Wolverines had a 25-17 edge.
“We didn’t keep them off the glass, especially in the first half,” the coach said. “I think they had about 10 offensive rebounds at halftime. Our first-shot defense was good, but they got a lot of easy points with offensive rebounds. That made a difference in the first-half score.”
A little more cushion would have helped as Miller Grove stormed out of halftime. The Wolverines coupled three takeaways with six quick points by Harvey to tie that game at 41-41 midway through the third quarter.
With 2:34 left in the period, senior point guard Timothy Stargell Jr.’s 3-pointer put Miller Grove ahead 46-45 for its first lead since it scored the game’s opening basket. Harvey finished the third quarter with 13 points to put his team ahead 53-48 heading into the final period.
“There’s a reason (Harvey) was the region player of the year for them,” Martin said. “He’s quick, athletic and has the size to get to the rim.”
The Wolves appeared to reclaim some momentum when Watson’s three-point play brought them within 55-51, but the Wolverines responded to grab a 66-56 lead with 3:25 remaining.
Then Nixon made his move, hitting two foul shots following a steal and assisting on a three-point play by senior Jonathan Miles that cut Buford’s deficit to four points with two minutes to play. But Miller Grove went ahead 74-66 with 30 seconds left before the Wolves made their final push.
Watson banked in a 3-pointer from well beyond the arc before Nixon sank two more, all while the Wolverines went 3 of 6 from the free-throw line. Down 77-75 with 4.1 seconds still on the clock, the Wolves sent Miller Grove senior center Kevin Paige (nine rebounds) to the stripe.
He missed both free throws in the deafening arena, but officials whistled Buford for a foul under the basket while jostling for the critical rebound.
“It was a foul,” Martin said of the call that gave the Wolverines a second chance to put the game away. “It was a poor job by us in that situation.”
Miller Grove senior guard Lorenzo Anderson — who provided 10 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter — promptly sank both of his free throws to seal the win and send his team to the state quarterfinals, where it will face top-seeded Dutchtown on Feb. 27 or Feb. 28.
It marked the end for Wolves seniors David Viti, Alex Jones (12 points, six assists), Miles and Cooper Long. Viti, Jones and Miles all started Thursday’s game.
“You hate it for the seniors, particularly a guy like Alex who has meant so much to the program over the last three years,” Martin said. “Then David came in over the last two years and was big for us, too. You feel for them and wish that things could happen a little differently.
“Winning a state championship takes talent, a lot of luck and sometimes the ball bouncing the right way for you. Unfortunately, that wasn’t our situation tonight.”