LILBURN — Buford boys basketball coach Allen Whitehart knew a big run by Johnson was coming.
It finally happened, but the Wolves managed to hang on by a thread.
Buford survived a massive surge by the Knights late in the fourth quarter, holding on for a 71-68 win Monday in the Blue Collar Basketball MLK Showcase at Berkmar High.
The Wolves (13-5, 8-0 Region 7-AAA) watched a comfortable 63-49 lead disappear when Johnson (14-4, 3-0 Region 8-AAAA) unloaded a 20-4 run in the game’s final minutes to cut the score to one, 67-66, with 44.9 seconds remaining.
Keyton Gibson and Taylor Mills each hit a pair of free throws in the final minute, but a game-tying 3-point attempt by Johnson’s Justin Jones bounced off the rim with 22 seconds remaining. The Knights could only muster a 2-pointer by James Hodges with six seconds left.
Then time ran out, and Buford could breathe easy again.
“We knew eventually things were going to go their way, and we helped them out with that by turning the ball over and playing dumb,” Whitehart said. “They shoot the ball and drive the ball too well for it not to happen.”
In a non-region matinee battle between two of the area’s most successful teams and future region opponents, the Wolves walked away with a narrow victory despite controlling the first three quarters of play.
All it took was a quick momentum swing and Johnson was back in contention, with a crowed of college scouts watching carefully. The Knights hit four 3-pointers during the fourth-quarter rally, despite struggling from the arc for most of the day.
Jones kick-started the run with the first trey, and Carter Cagle followed with a pair of his own. Drew Dunham sank one from long-range to put his team within three with 48.4 remaining.
Jones picked off the ball on the ensuing inbound and fed it to Dunham, who put Johnson within one.
“We started playing our brand of basketball,” Knights coach Jeff Steele said. “We didn’t do it for three quarters. I don’t know if we were awestruck because of the environment, or because all of those coaches are sitting there. I don’t know the answer to that, until the last six minutes when we started to play our style of basketball, and that was almost enough to get it done.”
Johnson just couldn’t get the shots it needed the rest of that crucial final minute. Jones and Cagle each missed 3-pointers, and Buford made the free throws at the other end.
The narrow escape didn’t sit well with Whitehart.
“In the playoffs, you have to do a much better than job than that to be able to play against good opponents,” he said. “We have to do a much better job closing games out and just doing the things that help us win.”
The win pushed Buford’s winning streak to a season-best seven games, while snapping Johnson’s seven-game run.
D’Marcus Simonds scored a team-high 22 points for the Wolves, including 15 in a first half dominated by the Wolves. Rakim Lubin recorded a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds, and Matt McMorris hit three 3-pointers for 15 points. Mills added 10.
Simonds’ best quarter was the first, when he scored nine points and pulled down five rebounds as Buford jumped out to a 25-13 lead at the first buzzer. Johnson briefly led 11-10 with 4:27 remaining in the quarter, but the Wolves closed out the period with a 15-2 run to take control early.
And it stayed that way. The Knights didn’t get back within a single-digit deficit until midway through the second quarter before Buford jetted ahead again. Simonds hit three straight baskets, and McMorris and Mills hit 3-pointers late to give the Wolves a 40-26 lead at halftime.
Lubin took over from there. The 6-foot-8, 225-pound Connecticut commit used his large frame to score nine points and grab four rebounds in the third quarter, and Buford took a 59-44 lead into the fourth.
Rebounding played a crucial part in staging Johnson’s comeback the rest of the way. The Knights outrebounded the Wolves 20-12 in the final period, with Hodges grabbing seven of those.
Johnson recorded 34 boards overall. Buford tallied 28.
Hodges ended up with a team-high 23 points and 11 boards. The Knights also got six rebounds from 5-foot-7 guard Daemonte Nicholson, and 13 points from Drew Dunham.
That made it easy for Steele to pick out his top performers in the game.
“Their energy and effort, diving on the floor for loose balls, that’s what I’m looking for from my team,” Steele said. “If everybody would bring that kind of intensity that we brought for six minutes for 32 instead, look what it could be.”
Cagle added 11 points for Johnson, and Jones provided nine. Typically the Knights’ best long-range shooters, they combined for six 3-pointers.
Both teams have quick turnarounds with games scheduled Tuesday. Johnson returns to Oakwood to host Athens Christian, while Buford returns to Region 7-AAA play with a road trip to Banks County.