Kiara Buford knows firsthand what it takes to make it to the girls’ basketball state tournament.
Buford reached Target Center all four years of her high school career at St. Paul Central, which won back-to-back state championships in 2007 and 2008. Now five years removed from a standout career at the University of Minnesota, Buford is on the verge of returning to state, this time as head coach at Robbinsdale Cooper.
Buford, in her fourth year in the job, is drawing on her experience as a player to prepare her team for a run at the program’s first-ever state berth.
The Hawks (24-2) received a first-round bye as the top seed in the Class 4A, Section 6 playoffs and took a 17-game winning streak into the semifinals Saturday night. Last year’s team built a 24-3 record before falling to Wayzata in the semifinals. This year Waconia and Benilde-St. Margaret’s, which the Hawks defeated by an average of 27.5 points this season, stand as the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds on the other side of the bracket.
“I feel like she wants to do it for us because she knows we’ve never been there,” said junior guard Aja Wheeler, who averages 14 points per game for the Hawks. “She tells us all the time that it’s hard [to qualify for state]. It’s not as easy as you think, and you can’t underestimate anybody. It’s win or go home.”
Winning is all the Hawks have done in 2018. They’re 16-0 since the calendar turned and have won those games by an average of over 20 points. They wrapped up a perfect 14-0 run through the Metro West Conference with a 72-50 triumph over Bloomington Kennedy in the final game of the regular season Feb. 23.
The Hawks are 65-15 since going 8-17 in Buford’s first season.
“I feel like we’ve grown together,” Buford said. “At the end of the day, I’m definitely proud. I always say they make me look good as a coach.”
Much of the Hawks’ success in recent seasons has been predicated on solid guard play. They typically like to set up in a man-to-man defense and force opponents into an up-tempo game and take advantage of their deep lineup of ballhandlers.
Wheeler is one of several scoring threats at the position along with freshman Andrea Tribble (10.4 points per game), senior TT Longs (10.2 points per game), senior Ju Gaston (8.9) and senior Jada Buford (7.9), who is the coach’s younger sister.
“Most of us have been playing together for six-plus years, so we have great chemistry,” said Longs, a senior captain with Kiara Coops. “We know how each other plays, where we like to get the ball and what we’re going to do in a game.”
Buford said the main difference between last year’s team and this year’s is the improved play of Kierra Wheeler, Aja’s sister. The freshman has doubled her scoring average from a season ago to a team-high 14.4 ppg and given the Hawks a post presence that opens things up for her teammates.
“Her role has developed a lot this year,” Buford said. “She’s made our pieces connect. Our guards can push the ball and play fast, so when teams play zone to slow us down, she is able to draw them inside and open things up for our shooters. We’ve dedicated a lot of practice time to shooting, and it shows in our girls’ stats.”
Now the only number the Hawks are focusing on is two — the number of games they have to win to reach the state tournament.
“Getting to state is the goal at this point. I think there will be some relief once we get past sections,” Buford said. “It’s a long season, so you have to stay grounded. Every game you have to take one at a time and play your best.”