MACON - The Region 6-AA championship game gave Lovett the confidence it needed to pull off the upset against Class AA's three-time defending state champs.
"I think the region championship gave Lovett a bit of confidence because we struggled," said Buford coach Gene Durden.
"We knew we could beat them," added Lovett coach Liz Kennedy. "We knew we had to do everything we could to beat them, but we knew we could beat them."
That confidence, great offensive rebounding late in the fourth and a little bit of luck all combined Saturday at the Macon Centreplex and Lovett (28-5) snapped Buford's (25-8) run of state titles and won one of its own, 52-42 over the Lady Wolves to complete an upset-riddled ride through the state tournament.
"The biggest difference in the ball game was offensive rebounds," Durden said. "They did a great job getting second-chance buckets."
For Buford, the loss finished a rocky season plagued with injuries that still nearly ended with a fourth consecutive state title.
Despite being down from late in the second quarter on, the Lady Wolves refused to go away, cutting the lead to four at numerous times, and cutting the lead to five at 45-40 on a 3-point play by Kaela Davis (14 points) with two minutes remaining.
With senior point guard Andraya Carter still nursing a separated shoulder (which didn't stop her from diving for loose balls) Davis stepped up to lead the team on offense.
"She did a great job taking over in the fourth quarter," Durden said. "But we built ourselves a hole early and we never recovered."
A triumvirate of Lady Lions kept Buford from completing a comeback. Tatianna Jackson led the team with 19 points, Sydney Umeri added 13, including three of the team's five 3-pointers, and center Christian Johnson finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Johnson scored eight of her points in the fourth to keep Buford from closing the gap.
Both coaches agreed that the ball seemed to find the Lady Lions late in the game.
"You knew it was our year when the ball was dodging around and would end up in our laps," Kennedy said. "It was (our) year. We've been working on this for four years."
It wasn't the Lady Wolves' year, but Durden said that, for the underclassmen, the game could be a learning experience and possibly a small relief from the pressure on the program.
"When you're expected to win, that's a lot of pressure for a 16, 17 year old to handle," Durden said. "Maybe this'll be a learning experience, a chance to get that fire again."
But for the four seniors, including two-time Class AA Player of the Year Carter, it was a tough end to a stellar high school career.
Even hurt, Durden wouldn't have had another player on the floor.
"Andraya has no reason to hang her head at all," Durden said. "I'd rather have an injured Andraya Carter on the floor then almost any other player."
Carter did finish with four points and Kristina Nelson added nine points and 12 rebounds, but Lovett's size in the paint and solid defense kept Buford's offense, which had scored 70 in the semifinals, to one of its lowest outings of the season.
Lovett set the tone for this game early, holding Buford without so much as a point for the first seven minutes of the game.
Buford responded by holding the Lady Lions to just seven points over that time, enabling the Lady Wolves to get in the game on a 3-pointer by Mackenzie Darrah to end the opening period and a 3-pointer by Davis to open the second.
Darrah hit Maya Dillard open in the lane for a layup and Buford's first lead of the game at 8-7 with under six minutes remaining in the second half.
Both defenses clamped down again, and the two teams exchanged hard fought points the rest of the half, with Lovett pulling ahead 15-14 at the break.
Senior Kallie Case led Buford with four points at the half, including a layup on a pass from Davis through the defense to give the Lady Wolves their largest lead at 12-8.
Lovett's top scorer, Jackson, entered the half with six points to lead all scorers. She capped off a seven-point run by Lovett late in the second quarter with a steal and a layup to put Lovett ahead 15-12.
Buford junior Nelson scored a putback with under 10 seconds remaining to get Buford back within one at the half, but the Lady Wolves would never lead again in the game.
Lovett pulled ahead in the third on the long range shooting of Umeri to take a nine-point lead into the fourth quarter.
Neither team was very good hitting free throws, but Lovett made nearly twice as many (11 of 20) to Buford's 6 of 11, a key in the Lady Lions holding the lead.
It is the second consecutive year that the GHSA Class AA state championship game came down to a Region 6-AA rematch.
Last year it was Buford defeating Greater Atlanta Christian in the team's fourth meeting of the season.
The two teams split in the regular season, but the Lady Wolves won both games that counted most, a 51-30 win in the region final and 57-38 win to grab a third-straight state title.
This year Buford only faced Lovett, which plays in subregion B while Buford plays in subregion A, once in the regular season and then again in the region finals, a 45-39 win.
While Buford advanced to its fourth consecutive state championship game with a relatively easy path - only North Oconee was able to stay with the Lady Wolves in an eight-point, second round win - Lovett upset three ranked opponents in succession to reach the title game.
The Lady Lions survived in a one-point win over East Hall in the second round before ending a pair of 26-game winning streaks by beating Model and Laney, both by double digits.
Buford wasn't the only team looking for a fourth consecutive state championship Saturday in Macon.
Wesleyan, which won four of five Class AA championships from 2004-2008, won its fourth consecutive Class A championship Saturday morning with a 68-44 win over Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.
Wesleyan was one of only two Georgia teams to defeat Buford this season.