Rangers vanquish Grace Baptist

By Tim Chambers
STAR STAFF
tchambers@starhq.com

   MURFREESBORO -- During the Class A state championship basketball game, sirens were sounding, warning the residents of Murfreesboro that a tornado could be in the nearby area. If they would have checked inside The Murphy Center, they would have found that is was the Unaka Rangers causing all the commotion.
   Before nearly 6,500 spectators, the boys from Stoney Creek put on a dazzling display of roundball that won the hearts of many statewide basketball fans. And in the end, their efforts won them the most memorable prize that all high school teams dream of -- the big gold ball.
   Unaka raced past Grace Baptist Academy 63-47 on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University.
   "This is something that I will never forget," said 6-5 senior center Josh Jones. "It's a dream come true. This was our goal throughout the season. It's unreal -- I thank God for everything."
   Grace (25-10) jumped out to a 4-0 lead before Tyler McCann answered with a jumper at the 5:30 mark. Unaka managed to stay close after Grace built a 14-6 advantage.
   A Chase Reeves putback sliced the lead to 14-8. After a Davis Eldridge deuce, Cody Collins took front stage with five consecutive points, one a downtown three at the 40-second mark, cutting the Eagle lead to 16-13 at the end of one quarter.
   "I knew I had to step up and play well," said Collins. "I just want to thank God for everything that's happened to us this week."
   Unaka (25-13) struck like a cobra in the second period as McCann skied over the rim to grab an offensive rebound and stick it back through, much to the delight of the large Ranger crowd.
   On the Rangers' next possession, McCann drilled a three-ball from near the press table, giving Unaka an 18-16 advantage.
   Rusty Chambers increased the lead to five on a deep three two steps behind the arc. After another McCann deuce and a Jones fadeaway, Unaka had built a 25-16 advantage.
   Grace managed a hoop, but the dynamic duo of Tyler and Rusty responded, bringing the Stoney Creek faithful to their feet. Chambers spotted McCann open on the baseline, and looking in the opposite direction, rifled a pass that resulted in a McCann three-point play, giving Unaka a 10-point cushion.
   Derek Cline, who ran the team so brilliantly the entire tournament, followed up with a no-look pass to Jones for two and a 30-18 lead.
   Unaka used another Jones basket and a Collins free throw to take a 33-18 lead at intermission.
   "I just want to give all the credit to God for blessing me with this wonderful feeling," said Cline. "I love the game of basketball and give Him credit for everything."
   Grace came out with vengeance in the third, ringing up a 9-0 run to shave the Ranger lead to six. Chambers stopped the bleeding with a slicing move down the middle, pushing the advantage to eight.
   Cline rang in a jumper as the lead grew to 10. Later, Unaka used six consecutive points by Collins to maintain a nine-point cushion.
   Grace carved the margin down to six, but Collins found Chambers open for a backdoor alley-OOP to up the margin to eight. However, a four-point run near the end of the quarter saw Grace pull within 45-41 at the end of three.
   Unaka came out sizzling in the fourth as Collins nailed a jumper off the wing for a 47-41 Unaka lead. After a missed shot, Chambers found Collins alone for a layup, extending the margin to 49-41.
   A McCann wrap-around pass to Jones resulted in a hoop, then McCann topped that off with a runner, extending the margin to 12.
   The play of the night came Unaka's next possession when Chambers threw a behind-the-back 25-foot pass to a wide-open Holtsclaw -- resulting in two points -- that brought the entire Murphy Center crowd to its feet.
   With time winding down, the Eagles had to foul, which proved to be fatal to the Grace team. Chambers swished four of four free throws to tie a state tournament record by shooting 100 percent -- 12 of 12 -- from the foul line as the maroon and white fans stood and cheered non-stop over the last two minutes of the game.
   As the clock counted down, every starter left the floor inside the 20-second mark before a standing ovation from the entire Murphy Center crowd -- ending a performance that many at the scorer's table said will go down as one of the greatest in state tournament history.
   Chambers, Collins, Jones, McCann, Cline, Holtsclaw and Josh Lowe embraced their coaches and each other as the public address announcer said: "The 2004 Class A state champions are the Unaka Rangers from Stoney Creek, Tennessee," which sent the Ranger fans into a frenzy.
   Collins led all scorers with 18 while adding six assists on the day.
   "I can't describe how good this feels," said Collins, who was named to the Class A state all-tournament team. "The Lord has blessed us throughout this week, and I give Him thanks for everything."
   McCann knocked home 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
   "Rusty, Cody and me roomed together, and we talked about this all week," McCann said. "God was with us this entire week, and I thank Him for everything we accomplished."
   McCann was chosen as the Most Valuable Player in the tournament, an honor that was well-deserved. He hit the game-winning buzzer-beater against Franklin Road Academy before adding 25 points against two-time defending state champion Tennessee Temple.
   Chambers, who was also named to the all-tournament team, turned in a stellar performance with 13 points and four assists in 28 minutes of action.
   "I am so happy for everyone," said Chambers. "Look at this crowd. It's absolutely amazing. I am so happy for the coaches, the faculty, the fans, the students and my school."
   Chambers added: "God has blessed me with the ability to play, and the best coaches anyone could ever play for. My family has always taught me to give thanks to God in everything that you're able to do. Tonight, I give Him thanks for the ability to play basketball and to be a part of such a historic event."
   Collins and Chambers both sent back their prayers to their former elementary coach, Kenneth Chambers, who was unable to attend the tournament because his dad and mom are ill and in the hospital.
   "We love Coach Chambers," they said. "He started this road at Hunter Elementary, and our coaches at Unaka High School finished it."
   Unaka shot a torrid 65 percent (26 of 40) for the game. The second half produced a blistering 77 percent on 13 of 17 from the floor.
   For the tournament, the Rangers connected on 60 of 96 shots for a scorching 67 percent in three games.
   "I would go to battle anytime with these boys," said teary-eyed Unaka head coach Donald Ensor. "These kids bought in to what we're trying to teach. If you do things the right way for the right reasons, then God will reward you for it. Today they got rewarded with the highest honor you can receive in high school basketball."
   As the players accepted the big gold ball, they promptly took it over and handed it to the Ranger crowd as the trophy was passed throughout a sea of maroon before a standing ovation at The Murphy Center.
   "We're just finishing what (former Unaka head) Coach (Ronnie) Snavely started," said Ensor. "I don't think it will sink in for a few more days."