Shortly after the Buford Lady Wolves defeated Laney in the Class AA state semifinals, Gene Durden noticed something unique about his team’s reaction.
“They were happy, but they were still focused,” Durden said Wednesday. “They knew there was something left to accomplish.”
That “something” was winning back-to-back state championships, which the Lady Wolves did the following night by defeating previously unbeaten Vidalia, 50-38.
“This was a little sweeter,” Durden said when asked to compare the two titles. “Last year, we felt that we built a team from the ground up that had a great shot at winning a state title.
“This year, we didn’t know,” he added. “We had to have a lot of pieces to the puzzle fit in the right place.”
The main piece to that puzzle was sophomore guard Andraya Carter, who went from the primary distributor on last year’s squad to the team’s leading scorer this year, averaging 19.5 points per game.
“Andraya is such a versatile player,” Durden said of the 5-9 guard, who also averaged 6.5 rebounds and 5.2 steals per game. “She gives us a lot of different ways we can do things offensively and defensively.”
That was evident during the playoffs when Carter was assigned to guard the opposing team’s best scorer. All she did was limit four 20 plus-scorers to less than 10 points a game.
“And one of them didn’t even score,” Durden said.
Yet as integral a role as Carter played for the Lady Wolves, the team wouldn’t have been able to repeat without its seniors: Alysha Rudnik, Lacey Pass, Ayana Ward, Jessica Ours and Kayla Burge.
“They have been the backbone of support for our program for two years,” Durden said of the seniors. “They were the rocks that the younger girls leaned on with great leadership. They did a good job of explaining why we do things like we do.”
Carter was at the center of the mentorship, and she appreciates everything this senior class has done for her.
“It’s going to be hard to replace them,” Carter said. “I commend them and my coaches because I couldn’t have done it myself.”
Playing as a team is something that Durden instills in his players from an early age, but that philosophy was especially important this year when the Lady Wolves had to replace eight graduated seniors from last year’s team.
The loss of those seniors didn’t impact the start of the season, as Buford reeled off 12 straight wins to start the year. The Lady Wolves lost their next game to eventual Class AAAA champion Southwest DeKalb, but then won seven straight, including a “turning-point” win over longtime rival and eventual Class A champion Wesleyan.
“To go to Wesleyan and beat them on their home floor; we knew we had a chance to win a state title after that,” Durden said.
Other teams, specifically Greater Atlanta Christian, tried to prevent that from happening. The Lady Spartans beat Buford twice this year, including in the region championship which forced Buford on the road for the majority of the playoffs.
As Durden looks back on it, losing to GAC (and Lovett, as well) wasn’t a bad thing.
“If you can learn from your losses and get better, some times that’s the way you have to get better,” he said. “If you never get beat, then you’ll never know your weaknesses.”
One place the Lady Wolves weren’t weak was in experience, which Durden believes is one of the main reasons they won another title.
“That played a big part because our kids were really calm,” he said.
Chemistry, talent and pride also played a role.
“These kids wanted to show that they could be successful,” Durden said.
“Chemistry also played a huge part,” he added. “You can have a very talented team and not do well if there’s no chemistry.”
Chemistry won’t be an issue for next year’s Lady Wolves, as the majority of the team is returning with one thing in mind: winning a third-straight title.
“I hope we can get all four,” Carter said. “That would be ideal, but we’re going to celebrate this one first.”
A third-straight title would put the girls’ basketball program into the class of Buford’s football and softball programs, which each have won three-straight titles. Durden said that he’s not focused on catching his coaching peers.
“We’re going to take this thing year-by-year,” he said. “We’ll let (Buford football coach) Jess (Simpson) be king right now.
“We’re happy to be the little sister here at Buford.”