The Buford girls are the defending state champions

A look at Saturday’s semifinals

If the Buford girls don’t repeat as Class AAAAA champions, it won’t be because they’ve overlooked an opponent. Starting with their warmups – something as basic as running layup drills before the game – are done with intensity and purpose. That helps explain why the Wolves will be playing the Final Four this weekend. 

“We really talk about focus,” coach Gene Durden said. “We’ve got to play 32 minutes hard and that starts with warmups. We try to make sure our warmups get them prepared to play in the game. They know what it’s going to take (to repeat) and they know it’s not going to be easy.”

The No. 1-ranked Wolves (27-3) will meet No. 5 Villa Rica (26-1) on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Fort Valley State. 

The Wolves, led by senior guard Tori Ozment, are a deep and experienced club. They play 32 minutes of stressful, attacking defense designed to wear down the opponent, both physically and mentally. 

Villa Rica has an outstanding player in do-everything Deasia Merrill, a 6-foot-2 junior capable to taking over a game. The Wildcats beat Clarke Central in the first round, survived a scare from Arabia Mountain in the second round and routed Fayette County in the Elite Eight.

Buford has not been tested in the first three rounds, with easy wins over Kell, Jackson and Eagle’s Landing. But Durden, who has won five state championships at Buford, and his staff go out of their way to ensure that his girls don’t try to take anything for granted. 

“The main thing to get them to understand, is it could happen at any time and you can’t take anybody for granted,” Durden said. “You’ve got to do your job because this time of year, somebody goes home and somebody goes on. That’s what they know. They know they can’t have a slip-up this time of year. We know this time of year you can’t got back and fix it.”

Here’s a look at Saturday’s other semifinal games: 

Boys: No. 3 Miller Grove (22-7) vs. Hiram (23-9), 4 p.m.: Miller Grove may be the best defensive team remaining in the field. The Wolverines are athletic and protect the rim and the glass with ferocity. Miller Grove is led by junior guard Maurice Harvey, one of many on the team who like to attack the basket. Harvey scored 31 in the eliminating defending champion Buford. Kevin Paige is a top-line defender and T.J. Stargell has grown into the role as floor leader. Hiram has been taking down the big guys all year. The Hornets ended Villa Rica’s long winning streak and beat the Wildcats again in the Region 7 tournament. Hiram stopped Starr’s Mill’s 13-game winning streak in the quarterfinals. 

Girls: No. 2 Harris County (28-2) vs. No. 3 Flowery Branch (25-6), 6 p.m.: This will be a showcase for Harris County star Jessika Carter, a 6-foot center who has signed with Mississippi State. Carter averages 20 points and 14 rebounds and is a contender to be the classification’s player of the year. Flowery Branch is a veteran team – guard Lexie Sengkhammee has started 120 games – and reached the semifinals last season. The Falcons are also dying to get one more shot at Buford, the team that’s handed them three of their losses. 

Boys: No. 8 Clarke Central (25-6) vs. No. 1 Warner Robins (26-3), 8 p.m.: This has all the makings of a high-scoring affair. Clarke Central averages 70 points and Warner Robins averages 80 points. Clarke Central has eight players who average at least eight points, including all-region picks Qua Monfort and Mijah Campbell. Warner Robins is led by Georgia State signee and Region 1 player of the year Nelson Phillips, Champ Dawson and Jacolbey Owens. 

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