State Finals at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens
Class AAAAA girls
No. 1 Buford vs. No. 2 Southwest Dekalb, 6 p.m.
Class AAAAA boys
No. 1 Buford vs. No. 4 Cedar Shoals, 8 p.m.
Tickets are $12, per GHSA rules.
After the Buford boys basketball team’s first tilt with Region 8-AAAAA rival Cedar Shoals this season, coach Eddie Martin told his team the Jaguars had a good chance to take home a state championship.
As Martin predicted, they’re now just one win away from claiming that prize, with only the Wolves standing in their way.
Top-ranked Buford and No. 4 Cedar Shoals will battle for the fourth time this season in the Class AAAAA state championship at 8 p.m. today at the University of Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum in Athens. The Wolves (28-2) won the three previous matchups, but Martin knows there will be no secrets between teams this familiar with each other.
“This time of year when you’re playing teams, you’re scrambling to find something out about them and get tape on them,” the coach said. “We have a feel for them, and they have a feel for us. We’ll both tweak some things, but personnel-wise, we have a pretty good idea of what’s going on.”
The Buford girls, however, have had to do plenty of homework to prepare for their state championship game against No. 2 Southwest DeKalb, which tips off at 6 p.m. today in Athens.
The No. 1 Lady Wolves (28-2) are rolling into their seventh state championship appearance in the last nine years, winning their four playoff games by an average of 33 points. Buford’s closest contest during that run was 77-56 win against fifth-ranked Warner Robins in the quarterfinals.
“We’re peaking and playing really well offensively right now,” Lady Wolves coach Gene Durden said. “With the way we’re shooting the ball and sharing the ball, we’re pretty tough. That’s on top of our defense always being pretty stable.”
Martin believes his team is hitting its stride at the right time, as well, thanks to the late-game heroics of junior Alex Jones.
The 5-foot-10 guard sank a short jumper at the buzzer to lift Buford to a 69-68 win against New Hampstead in the second round Feb. 23.
After Jones’ season-saving shot — which Martin said gave his team an “extra life” — the Wolves trounced No. 2 Warner Robins and No. 5 Fayette County by 22 and 23 points, respectively, to reach their third state championship game in program history.
“Once we saw that situation transpire, kids have really played hard the past two games,” Martin said. “ … When you’re that close to being eliminated and win, you realize every possession, every minute, every shot means something and that you’ve got to take full advantage of it.
“We woke up a little bit after that, and maybe that was the turning point that got us over the hump and got us playing pretty well right now.”
Buford’s final test comes against the Jaguars (27-4), whose only loss that didn’t come at the Wolves’ hands was a 59-54 overtime contest against Class AAAAAAA Duluth on Dec. 3.
Cedar Shoals also lost to Buford by five points in overtime Jan. 13, which came five weeks after a 72-66 Wolves victory on the road. Buford took the third meeting with a 76-61 win in the region tournament championship game, though it was tied midway through the fourth quarter.
The Jaguars earned a fourth and final shot against their region foe by cruising past defending Class AAAAA champion Miller Grove 59-38 in the semifinals last Saturday.
The Lady Wolves’ state championship opponent had a much more difficult time getting there.
Southwest DeKalb (27-4) needed a fourth-quarter run to sneak by Flowery Branch 66-63 in the semifinals. After falling during that stage last season, Buford can knock off the defending Class AAAAA champion and give Durden his fifth state title.
“I think the experience from last year has helped us build to this point,” senior forward Marissa Bruce said. “We were a little bit of a younger team, as far as mindset and experience. But we’ve grown from that experience this year, which has pushed us to be the team that we are.”
The Lady Wolves’ upperclassmen were part of the last team to win a state championship, which came in 2014-15 by way of a 35-34 win against Carrollton in Class AAAA.
Buford’s boys, meanwhile, are trying to capture their first-ever state title. But the Wolves are in good hands under the guidance of Martin, whose vast experience includes seven-career championships between stints at Greater Atlanta Christian and Norcross.
“The biggest thing we tell them is that you can’t look at all of the surroundings,” he said of preparing his players for the pressure of a state championship game. “You’ve got to block out the distractions and just focus on the game itself. If you do that, then it gives you a chance to win it.
“If you start looking around and start thinking about this and that instead of what you’ve got to do, those distractions can play a big part in a game like this.”
For all the distractions they’ll face tonight, at least the Wolves will be familiar with their opponent.