Buford vs. Rabun County
When: 7 tonight
Records: Buford (26-4); Rabun County (27-1)
Seeds: Buford No. 2 Region 6-AA; Rabun County No. 1 Region 8-AA
Coaches: Buford, Gene Durden. Rabun County, DeeDee Dillard.
Key players: Buford, PG Andraya Carter (5-8, So.); F Alysha Rudnik (5-9, Sr.); C Sheresse Williams (5-10, Jr.). Rabun County, SG Marina DeFoor (5-9, Sr.); C Logan Turner (Sr.); SF Krista Dixon (So.).
Outlook: Despite his familiarity with Rabun County, Durden made the two-hour drive to Tiger on Thursday to scout the next obstacle standing in the way of a return trip to Macon.
What he saw was an “experienced and scrappy” Lady Wildcats’ team that defeated a team that handed Buford one of its four losses this year.
“With us being a little inexperienced, their experience might hurt us,” Durden said of Rabun County.
What won’t hurt the Lady Wolves is the offensive fortitude of Rabun County, which is averaging more than 71 points per game during its nine-game winning streak. Buford has one of the best defenses in Class AA and held Crawford County to its lowest scoring output in a 65-42 win Wednesday.
“Our defensive fundamentals helped prevent them from scoring,” Durden said. “If we play hard and play great defense, we’re going to be alright.”
Rabun County is led by DeFoor, who was named the Region 8-AA Player of the Year.
BUFORD — Despite winning the first girls’ basketball state title in school history last season, Buford coach Gene Durden entered this year with a bevy of unanswered questions.
How could his team defend a title after relying on eight seniors — four of which went on to play college basketball — during the championship run of 2009?
How would his dynamic point guard Andraya Carter adjust to a role focused on scoring and creating, as opposed to distributing the ball to a talented group that included Auburn University freshman and The Times 2009 Player of the Year, Blanche Alverson?
How could Buford, which fought through multiple yearly battles with Wesleyan, react to being the team trying to defend a state championship?
To sum it up, how could the Lady Wolves possibly duplicate last year’s success?
It wasn’t easy, but Buford (26-4) is back where it was a year ago: a win away from Macon, and two wins away from playing for a state championship.
For Durden, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.
“When we walked eight seniors off the floor, a lot of people thought we’d have a rough time competing,” said Durden, whose team will play Rabun County (27-1) at 7 tonight in Dalton. “Our seniors this year have done a great job of leading, and it’s helped that we’ve been playing some good basketball.”
But getting to this point wasn’t easy.
“It was hard at first,” senior Alysha Rudnik said of losing Alverson and the rest of last year’s leaders. “But then our confidence started building and we realized that we didn’t have to rely on Blanche anymore.”
Now, they rely on Carter, a dynamic point guard thrust into the role of go-to player prior to her sophomore season.
“For a while, I really didn’t get done what I needed to do, and what my team needed me to do,” Carter said of adjusting to her new role. “Coach Durden stayed on me so much, and there were times when I would go home crying because I was so frustrated.”
That’s when this year’s seniors displayed a sign of leadership.
“One day they told me, ‘We’re your team, we want to win,’” Carter said.
With the support of her team and coach, Carter embraced her new role and got the Lady Wolves off to a 19-1 start. The landmark win came Jan. 30 against Wesleyan, when Buford bested its rivals by two points in overtime and gave the team confidence in playing close games.
“Last year, we were just blowing people out,” Rudnik said. “This year we’ve had closer games and have had to grind it out.
“If that happens in the playoffs, we’re going to keep our composure and not get crazy and out of control and we’ll just fight through it.”
Buford wasn’t able to rely on that mentality in a 56-52 loss to Greater Atlanta Christian on Feb. 5 that sent the Lady Wolves into a slide that saw them lose two of their next seven games.
“The losses helped our team because for a while we were playing well and being successful,” Carter said. “When we lost, it set us back and made us realize that we had to work and fix some things.”
It also reminded the players that this year isn’t last year.
“It’s so different because our team is so different,” Rudnik said. “We were favored last year, but the girls on this team weren’t favored.”
What they were was prepared, because they practiced against last year’s champs.
“We have a lot of kids that didn’t play minutes, but everyday at practice, they had to compete against a great team,” Durden said.
“That gave them confidence,” he added. “This year’s group knew they couldn’t win the same way as last year’s because it’s a different team. That practice gave them the ability to keep the program at this level.”
It’s that pride in the program that has this year’s group focused on bringing home another state title.
“Winning it all again would be the best thing ever because people didn’t think we could do it this year,” Rudnik said. “It would show that it wasn’t just last year’s seniors and that we really have a good program.”
The current star of that program wants nothing more that to send Rudnik and the rest of the seniors out on top.
“I’ve really gotten close to this year’s seniors with them being so supportive of me,” Carter said. “They allow me to lead and I want them to feel just as good as last year’s.
“I want to send them away the same way last year’s seniors went.”