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Class AAAAA basketball playoffs: Buford girls race past Decatur 76-38 in first round
After falling behind early, Buford boys rally to top Lithia Springs 75-63
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Buford's Marissa Bruce (14) passes the ball to a teammate while being guarded by Decatur's Emily Seats-Jordan (24) during Saturday night's game between Buford and Decatur in the first round of Class AAAAA state playoffs at the Buford City Arena. Buford won 76-38. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Buford High girls basketball Gene Durden always stresses winning the opening three minutes of the first and third quarters along with the final three minutes of the game.

The Lady Wolves controlled the first two stretches Saturday night, rendering the third one inconsequential.

No. 1 Buford went on separate 11-0 runs to start each half in a 76-38 win against Decatur in the first round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs in Buford City Schools Arena. The Lady Wolves (25-2) were well ahead at halftime, but their burst out of the break erased any chance for a comeback.

“We talk about the first three minutes of the first quarter, the first three minutes of the third quarter and then the last three minutes of the fourth quarter,” Durden said. “Those are times that we really have to dominate, and so I thought we really did well in all three of those.”

His team’s blowout prefaced a 75-63 win for the Buford boys, who coincidentally trailed Lithia Springs by 11 points early.

The No. 1 seed Lady Wolves host No. 2 seed Ware County in the second round Wednesday or Thursday, while the boys welcome No. 2 seed New Hampstead. There are no times or dates set for either contest, but Buford’s coaches are hopeful they can arrange another doubleheader.

Durden said he was worried about how his team would perform early after not playing for a week.

The Lady Wolves dismissed those concerns almost immediately.

Senior forward Marissa Bruce scored the first eight points of Buford’s 11-0 opening run, during which it forced four consecutive turnovers. The No. 4 seed Lady Bulldogs (16-11) never recovered from that initial punch and trailed 40-12 at halftime.

“I think it is a little challenging,” Bruce said of not having played in a week. “But we stayed focused, and our mentality as a team is that we’ve got to get better every practice.”

Junior guard Audrey Weiner, who had a team-high 18 points, hit a trio of 3-pointers to spark the Lady Wolves’ second 11-0 surge. Classmate Tory Ozment rounded out the run by turning one of her three steals into a layup.

Decatur finally found some offensive rhythm with 16 points in the third quarter, but Buford still extended its lead to 40 points behind a 6-for-9 shooting clip from beyond the arc.

“I think we had kind of settled in and focused on hitting our shots,” said Bruce, who had 14 points. “We have some great shooters that come in and work really, really hard. They just did their thing.”

The Lady Wolves allowed only four Bulldogs to score as senior guard Taylor Jones (22 points) did most of the damage. They also forced 24 turnovers and won the rebounding battle 32-12, with forward Zikaya Wright and Jessica Nelson each grabbing nine boards.

But what mattered most for Buford was the way it began each half.

“Our coaches stress starting fast in the first and third quarters, and how important they are,” Bruce said. “We knew that we had to go out there and do what we had to do so that we weren’t one of the teams going home tonight.”

BUFORD BOYS 75, LITHIA SPRINGS 63: For the first few minutes of Saturday night’s game, the No. 1 Wolves were in danger of suffering a massive upset in their new state-of-the-art arena.
But Buford never seemed fazed.

After falling behind 13-2, the No. 1 seed Wolves (25-2) chipped away at the deficit and eventually took control of their first-round playoff game against fourth-seeded Lithia Springs. Even when the Lions (15-12) were within three points heading into the final quarter, Buford mustered a late run to advance to the second round.

“Our kids stayed calm,” Buford coach Eddie Martin said. “I thought our kids showed some maturity out there, and they didn’t start panicking and thinking we’ve got to have a 10-or-11-point play because there’s no such thing.”

Buford sophomore forward Marcus Watson produced a double-double with 23 points and 13 rebounds, including a tip-in at the first-half buzzer. Junior guard Alex Jones stuffed the stat sheet with 19 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals.

They combined for 19 of the team’s 25 fourth-quarter points, and Jones dished to Watson on an emphatic dunk that was Buford’s final bucket of the night.

That came after Lithia Springs senior guard Ceaunte Zachery scored 14 of his game-high 25 points in the third quarter. But he hit only one basket in the fourth quarter as the deficit he had reduced minutes before ballooned to double digits.

“We got lucky he had only one basket at the end,” Martin said. “(Zachery) was getting to the rim. He was very crafty, very creative. When he got in there, it wasn’t just your average little floater or pull-up jumper. He was scooping it and all that kind of stuff. He’s a heck of a player.”

Wolves junior forward David Viti scored 16 points, the last of which came on a three-point play that effectively sealed the win. Sophomore guard Donell Nixon added 12 points.

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