Class AAA boys basketball state championship game
Buford (27-5) vs. Morgan County (25-5)
When: 4:45 p.m. Saturday
Where: Macon Centreplex
Head-to-head meetings this season: Morgan County won 76-65 on Nov. 26; Buford won 69-58 on Feb. 1.
Coaches: Buford, Allen Whitehart; Morgan County, Charlemagne Gibbons
Key players: Buford, C Rakim Lubin (6-5, Sr., 20 ppg., 13 rpg.); G D’Marcus Simonds (6-4, So., 22 ppg., 12 rpg.); G Matt McMorris (6-2, Sr., 10 ppg., five assists). Morgan County, C C.J. Thurman (6-8, Sr., 12.1 ppg., 10.4 rpg.); PG Tookie Brown (5-10, Jr., 25.6 ppg., 3.6 assists, 3.7 rpg.); F Jailyn Ingram (6-5, So., 16.1 ppg., 7.1 rpg.).
Playoff wins: Buford beat North Murray 68-34, Blessed Trinity 45-40, Cartersville 80-73, Callaway 92-76. Morgan County defeated Woodward Academy 58-43, East Hall 72-54, Cedar Grove 69-61, Johnson-Savannah 70-51.
BUFORD — When the Buford Wolves walked into their locker room following last Saturday’s semifinal win over Callaway, there wasn’t as much celebration as what boys’ coach Allen Whitehart expected from his team.
Instead there was an overwhelming feeling that the Wolves still had some unfinished business ahead of them. They had one final game left to win before they’re able to celebrate their ultimate goal.
“They went in and they were happy we won, but I think overall we came in wanting to play the next game,” Whitehart said.
Buford (27-5) will play that next — and final — game at 4:45 p.m. Saturday, when the Wolves face the Morgan County Bulldogs (25-5) in the Class AAA state championship game in Macon.
The championship game will be the third meeting this season between the two ranked teams.
Both teams earned 11-point victories over the other during the regular season. Morgan County beat Buford 76-65 back on Nov. 16, when the Wolves were still lacking depth with members of the team still helping the Buford football team make a run toward the state championship. When at full-strength, the Wolves topped the Bulldogs 69-58 on Feb. 1 in Buford.
Heading into the third meeting, Whitehart admitted he has mixed feelings about facing the same opponent for a third time in a season.
“It’s got its pros and cons,” Whitehart said. “Pros are you know who they are, you know what they do. The cons are they know what you do and who you are. I think it balances out. I think it benefits and definitely makes that familiar matchup something to think about.”
Buford is making its second appearance in a state championship game under Whitehart, who led the Wolves to a Class AA state runner-up finish in 2011. The Wolves advanced to the semifinals last season.
A win Saturday would be Buford’s 22nd straight, and would give the boys’ basketball program its first-ever victory in a state championship game. Playing at a school known for winning state titles — the school has already won a football, softball and two wrestling titles this year — Buford’s players are focused on claiming the ultimate prize.
“We want to be the first team to do it,” Wolves senior Rakim Lubin said. “It hasn’t been done in boys’ history, so we want to be the first to do it. We want it pretty bad.”
A major reason for Buford’s 21-game winning streak has been the play of Lubin, a senior transfer from Alabama.
Previously criticized for his leadership and temper throughout the regular season by Whitehart, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Lubin has elevated his game in the playoffs, taking it upon himself to be a leader for the Wolves.
The University of Connecticut commit is averaging 24 points per game this postseason, four points more than his regular-season average. In the title game, though, Lubin will face one of his toughest tests when he squares off against 6-foot-8 Tennessee commit C.J. Thurman of Morgan County.
Thurman is averaging 12.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game for the Bulldogs. The Lubin-Thurman matchup between the two big men could be one of the ultimate factors in the title game, according to Whitehart.
“They’re both big, physical, athletic kids,” Whitehart said. “That is going to be a big part of what the game will be decided on.”
While the focus for many will be on the big men, the game might possibly come down to the play in the backcourt.
Region 7-AAA Player of the Year D’Marcus Simonds, who is averaging 25.6 points per playoff game, leads Buford and has shown he could potentially turn into one of the nation’s most talented guards in the coming years.
For Morgan County, Mississippi State commit Tookie Brown (25.6 points per game this season) is the go-to threat, while 6-foot-7 Jailyn Ingram (offer from Georgia Tech) is contributing with 16.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
“We stop Tookie, we win the game,” Lubin said. “We stop Tookie, that’s about it. If we limit him to 20 points in the game, we’ll win, definitely.”