vs. Heard County
When: 7 tonight
Where: Northwest Georgia Trade Center, Dalton
Records: Buford (23-7, No. 1 Region 6-AA); Heard County (24-3, No. 1 Region 5-AA)
Coaches: Buford, Gene Durden. Heard County, Valeree Williams.
Key players: Buford, SG Kaela Davis (6-2, Jr.); PG Andraya Carter (5-8, Sr.), C Kristina Nelson (6-4, Jr.). Heard County, G La’rice Walker (5-5, Jr.), G Jemeka Parks (5-8, So.), C Aaliyah Rutledge (6-0, Sr.).
Outlook: In the process of winning three consecutive state titles, the Lady Wolves have played their fair share of teams from around the state and even the country. One of those teams, Heard County, can attest to how good this Buford team can be.
Buford topped the Lady Braves 72-36 in the second round of the state playoffs a year ago, just one of a long list of lopsided wins for the Lady Wolves en route to their championship.
Not much has changed on the court for Buford this year, especially since Carter returned from an offseason knee injury. The Lady Wolves still routinely dispatch opponents in blowout fashion, evidenced by a 90-40 win over Kendrick in the first round of the state playoffs.
When it comes to Heard County, however, the on-court product has improved drastically. Last year, it was a young team that managed to win 15 games, one that was satisfied with simply having the opportunity to face the Lady Wolves in the playoffs.
This year, having returned all five starters to the court, the Lady Braves won 24 games en route to a region championship and expect to be competitive when they hit the floor tonight.
“Compared to last year, we are much more experienced, faster, stronger and wiser,” said Williams, who has coached her team further than any Heard County team in Class AA. “We’re a fast-paced team that likes to scramble. That’s our game.”
The team is led by Walker, who averages 15 points and five rebounds per game. With her running the show, dishing to counterparts like Parks (14 points, five rebounds) and Rutledge (10 points, eight rebounds), the team has found an identity that has become increasingly difficult to match up with.
If any team can do that successfully, however, it may be Buford, which features a number of Division-I prospects, including Tennessee signee Carter, and Davis, one of the top junior prospects in the country.
Since returning from an ACL injury, Carter has been a force, averaging 8.6 points and 2.5 steals in 12 games played. Davis has been the focal point of the offense, averaging 18.5 points and 6.3 rebounds.
When: 5:30 tonight
Where: Northwest Georgia Trade Center, Dalton
Records: Dawson County (25-6, No. 1 Region 8-AA); Jordan (26-3, No. 2 Region 5-AA)
Coaches: Dawson County, Thad Burgess. Jordan, Gerald Turner.
Key players: Dawson County, G Tyler Dominy (6-4, Jr.); F Bruce Clark (6-4, Jr.); G Gunnar Armstrong (5-11, Jr.). Jordan, C Marcus Powell (6-5, Sr.); G Jeff Blanton (5-8, Sr.)
Outlook: Dawson County has seen its share of opposites this season. The Tigers, who prefer to keep the game low-scoring and win with defense, rebounding and execution in the half-court set, have frustrated plenty of opponents who prefer a run-and-gun game.
But perhaps no foe so far plays with a more diametrically opposed philosophy than Jordan.
As Red Jackets coach Gerald Turner told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer earlier this week: “We’ll pressure on defense, that’s what we do. And then we’ll run, and we’ll run and we’ll run some more. That’s who we are and what we do. We can’t really change out spots at this point.”
The numbers show the differences between the teams’ approaches. Dawson County has allowed more than 60 points only twice this season, while Jordan has scored less than 60 only once — a 58-56 win over Carver-Columbus in the regular season finale.
One commonality between the Tigers and Red Jackets is their ability to win the battle on the boards. According to Burgess, Dawson County has outrebounded the vast majority of its opponents this year en route to its first berth in the state quarterfinals since 1969.
Jordan’s ability on the glass was demonstrated in its second-round win over Coosa when the Red Jackets outrebounded the Eagles 50-21, with the help of 24 offensive boards.
Although it’s been their defense getting most of the attention, the Tigers, who play their starting five a large majority of the time, can score when they need to. Dominy leads the team, averaging 15 points per game. He was right at his average in the Tigers’ 42-35 win over Buford on Wednesday.
The Red Jackets, who last reached the quarterfinals in 2007 when they eventually defeated East Hall in the state championship game, rely on a mix of speed and size and get offensive production from a number of sources. Marcus Powell had 17 points to lead four players in double figures against Coosa.
One element which could work in favor of the Tigers is the crowd. Dalton is about 70 miles from Dawsonville, about 200 from Columbus, and Tiger fans have shown a willingness to travel. A large contingent made the trip to Hartwell for the 8-AA region tournament, and more than 1,600 fans packed the Dawson County High School gym for Thursday’s win.