BUFORD — In a battle of Class 5A’s top-ranked girls basketball teams, Buford High showed it’s still the team to beat.
The No. 1 Lady Wolves used a big second half to pull away from No. 2 Flowery Branch for a 58-48 win Friday night here at Buford City Arena. Despite trailing for more than two and a half quarters, Buford (7-0, 2-0 Region 8-5A) emerged from its early-season test looking like a strong favorite to repeat as state champion.
For the Lady Falcons (6-2, 2-1), Friday’s contest played out much like last season’s trip to Buford City Arena when they led most of the way but lost by five points. Yet Flowery Branch coach Courtney Newton-Gonzalez could still draw some positives from the region defeat.
“We proved we could hang with them,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “When we play our game, we’re OK. But with Buford, you can’t make mistakes, and you have to play the whole game. That’s not what we did. We had some mental lapses.”
Those manifested mostly during the third quarter, during which the Lady Falcons committed 10 of their 22 turnovers. The Lady Wolves reeled off seven straight points toward the end of the period to take their first lead, which they didn’t concede for the rest of the game.
“They hit all their shots in transition, mainly in the first quarter,” said Buford senior Tory Ozment, who had a game-high 24 points. “We had to shut that down for them to stop scoring. So second half, we were definitely sprinting around more to eliminate that.”
Indeed, Flowery Branch led 18-8 after the first quarter, consistently breaking the Lady Wolves’ press to find open shooters. Four different Lady Falcons made a 3-pointer in the quarter.
But Ozment, who tallied just one point in the opening period, keyed Buford’s second-quarter surge. The Michigan State signee hit treys on back-to-back possessions to help cut the deficit to one point, while the Lady Wolves’ full-court press and zone defense finally began to frustrate Flowery Branch.
Taniyah Worth (12 points, 10 rebounds), however, kept Buford at bay with a 3-pointer late in the first half for the Lady Falcons, who clung to a 29-27 lead at halftime.
“They outplayed us, played harder than us in the first half and kind of put us on our heels,” Lady Wolves coach Gene Durden said. “ … I thought (Flowery Branch) came out with a lot of energy, and we didn’t match it.”
The same couldn’t be said for the second half.
Buford turned the pressure up immediately, flustering a Lady Falcons offense that had assisted on nine of its 11 first-half baskets. The Lady Wolves tied the game five times before taking their first lead on senior guard Audrey Weiner’s layup with about two minutes left in the third quarter.
Worth, an Alabama signee, completed her double-double before the period ended, but Buford had already taken control.
Weiner (18 points) knocked down a 3-pointer off a turnover to make it 50-41, and she and Ozment made 10 free throws to account for the rest of their team’s fourth-quarter scoring.
Durden said a halftime adjustment to take away Flowery Branch’s backside passing lanes against the press helped turn the tide in the Lady Wolves’ favor.
The teams will meet again Jan. 23 in Flowery Branch, and Newton-Gonzalez hopes her players can learn from Friday’s defeat. They certainly seemed to do so last year, when they lost all three matchups against Buford but still reached their first-ever state semifinal.
“It comes down to what our kids take from it,” the third-year coach said. “We can’t have mental breakdowns, and to be successful as a team takes everybody showing up. We can’t have any letups and have to be disciplined for 32 minutes.”
The Lady Falcons will look to rebound when they return to action against Ossining (N.Y.) at 1 p.m. next Monday at the KSA Holiday Tournament in Orlando, Florida.
Buford travels to face Grayson at 5 p.m. today in Loganville.
BUFORD BOYS 79, FLOWERY BRANCH 69: The second-ranked Wolves (5-2, 2-0 region) withstood a back-and-forth third quarter and a late Falcons rally to assert themselves early in the Region 8-5A schedule.
Flowery Branch (5-3, 2-1) led 34-32 at halftime before the teams put on an offensive showcase. Buford senior David Viti (21 points) hit four treys during the third quarter, which ended with the Wolves ahead 55-51.
Alex Jones (22 points) and Marcus Watson (19) helped defending Class 5A champion Buford reach a seemingly comfortable 14-point lead midway through the final period. But Flowery Branch’s Patsheko Lutumba, who had nine points, sliced the deficit to just seven with a long 2-pointer with 18.6 seconds remaining.
Justin Quick scored 17 points for the Falcons, who face Barren County (Ky.) at 2:30 p.m. next Thursday in the 2017 Smoky Mountain Basketball Christmas Tournament in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Buford, meanwhile, will take on Shiloh at 6 p.m. next Thursday at the Atlanta Hawks Naismith Classic in Norcross.