BUFORD — East Hall came into its game against Buford with a star player in Jasmine Jenkins and a solid game plan that was executed well enough to lead at halftime.
Buford came into the game as back-to-back state champions, with the 1-2 punch of Tennessee commitments Kaela Davis and Andraya Carter backed by a strong supporting cast. Though it took them awhile to get going, the Lady Wolves seized control of the game in the third quarter on the way to a 55-41 win Friday night in the first round of the Class AA state playoffs.
The Lady Wolves (25-3), the No. 1 seed out of Region 6, will advance to host Heard County on Tuesday. Region 5’s No. 3-seeded Lady Braves (15-10) beat Peperell on Friday.
For the first time in six consecutive playoff appearances, the No. 4-seeded Lady Vikings (15-12), will not advance in the state playoffs. They ended the season on a three-game skid that included a heartbreaking overtime loss to Fannin County last Friday in the Region 8-AA semifinals, followed by a hangover loss to Union County in the consolation game the next day.
But the Lady Vikings put that behind them to play one of their best games on Friday.
Led by Jenkins — she led all scorers and accounted for 30 of her team’s 41 points — the Lady Vikings took a 20-19 lead in to halftime.
“We felt great,” the junior guard said. “I felt like we were really going to pull it out. We were playing hard, executing the game plan, making shots and making stops.
“We wanted to win, not compete.”
In the first half, East Hall seemed to breeze through the Lady Wolves’ full-court defense that has given other opponents nightmares, using mostly Jenkins and versatile 6-foot forward Morgan Jones, the team’s tallest player, to bring the ball up the floor.
“We run the same defense so our kids are experienced in the press they run,” Lady Vikings coach Joey Rider said. “We wanted to attack the gaps (in Buford’s defense) with the dribble.”
That strategy led to East Hall finding the open pass, often down low, and earning trips to the free-throw line, where the Lady Vikings were 6 for 9 in the first half. It also led to good shooting looks for a heavily-defended Jenkins.
East Hall trailed 12-7 after the first quarter, but went on a 13-7 second-quarter run fueled by 10 Jenkins points to take the halftime lead.
Buford coach Gene Durden said he told his team at halftime to focus.
“We had too many turnovers, weren’t taking care of the ball, our shot selection was bad and we weren’t playing our brand of basketball,” Durden said. “We had to step up the tempo and take care of the ball.”
A more up-tempo Lady Wolves team made its move in the third quarter, using a 14-2 run to build a 33-22 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Davis and Carter combined for 12 of those points, including Davis’ 3-pointer with six seconds left.
“(Durden) was disappointed (at halftime) because we didn’t get off to the fast start we’re known for,” said Davis, who finished with a team-high 22 points. “We had to wake up and focus.”
Said Carter, who had 16 points: “East Hall came ready to play and we started slow. We’re better when we’re fast, and it took a while for us to get going.”
Carter’s basket with 7:01 in the third quarter opened the second-half scoring, gave Buford a 21-20 lead and the Lady Wolves never trailed again.
“It’s no secret when you get down to a good team like Buford, it’s hard to come back,” Jenkins said.
Though the Lady Vikings didn’t pull any closer to Buford than eight points in the fourth quarter, Jenkins kept the game respectable with 18 fourth-quarter points before fouling out with 23.7 seconds left to play.
Jenkins finished the game 8 for 19 from the field, including 5 for 9 from 3-point range and 7 for 8 from the free throw line.
“(Jenkins) had one of the best players in the country (Carter) defending her all night,” Rider said. “Andraya is great, but Jazz had 30. She knew the load she had to carry for us offensively, and what she did tonight was great.
“It was perfect.”
Davis helped put the game away with nine fourth-quarter points. Her three-point play after being fouled making a layup gave the Lady Wolves a 46-32 lead and put the game out of reach.
After the game, Durden told his team the competition may view them as vulnerable and come after them harder after learning East Hall had them down at halftime.
“Everyone is going to come at us hard anyway because we’re going for our third state title in a row,” Carter said. “We could have handled tonight better and left no doubt, but now we’ve got to step up and work hard.”