'Landers pull out win over Rangers

By Wes Holtsclaw

     Cloudland watched its lead vanish.
     After trailing by as much as eleven in the game, Unaka battled back strong behind Josh Jones and Cody Collins and took a six-point lead in the contest with under three minutes left.
     Big buckets from Cloudland's Mark Byrd and Robbie Tolley swung the momentum and tied the game at 67 with under a minute left.
     However, a turnover swung to a Tolley bucket and free throws from Aaron Stocton and Byrd put the Highlanders on top with a 72-68 win at Smith Gymnasium on Friday night.
     "We called time-out there and I told the boys if we could get a bucket that we'd be all right," said Cloudland coach Ned Smith. "We set us up a set play and the boys executed it to a tee."
     "Our crowd was great tonight," Josh Johnson said. "We fueled off them. They were awesome and I hope we can get this much support the rest of the year. We played good, that's the best I've seen us play this year."
     Said Unaka coach Donald Ensor: "We've got to go home and defend the home court. We had a bad shooting in the first half and we had serious, serious foul trouble. We've got to come ready to play in the first half. We came back out and had a six-point lead.
     "There was a missed block out and Tolley wound up with a three-point play and cut our lead in half. There was several times that we had opportunities to win that game. I'm not saying it was mental lapses, completely. We are going to have to regroup."
     Cloudland came out on fire in the contest with big buckets from Johnson and Tolley. Unaka was plagued with foul trouble throughout the game and got a blow when Rusty Chambers got two early.
     Unaka was 0-of-12 from behind the arch early, and relied on its inside game. Jones and Chris Arnold had a big half, while freshman Rusty Holtsclaw proved to be a power.
     Byrd's ball handling was tough for Unaka's press, as he got Zach Cook and Cole Gouge some steady looks to push out a nine-point lead going into the second half.
     Chambers bounced back out for the Rangers with big offensive contribution. Unaka got on a roll behind three treys from Collins and more inside prowess from Jones to tie the game.
     Cloudland continued to get a good stretch of points inside from Stocton and Tolley, but the Rangers kept out on top late.
     The Highlanders swung the momentum late with their big run with a screaming crowd behind them. Unaka had a chance to tie it with under 20 seconds left, but Derek Cline missed a crucial three as Cloudland took over the first place lead in the Watauga Valley Conference.
     "The adrenaline fueled us and the crowd got into it," said Byrd. "It was good win for us. Unaka's got a great team. They shot the lights out of it and played good inside.
     "We put them in a rough situation getting steals, loose balls and rebounds. It kind of took them out of their game first. In the second half they took us out of ours, but what can you say."
     The officials called 28 fouls on the Rangers compared to Cloudland's 14 in the game as a host of fans from the Creek were highly upset.
     However, the Highlanders were happy to get the win, but they know it's still anybody's conference to win.
     "It was great game," said Cole Gouge, who had 10 points for Cloudland. "We had great fans out here tonight. Unaka is a great team, we pulled it out and I'm happy."
     "All we've got to do is beat UH and we're in the drivers seat. Unaka beat them and University High is a good team. But we know we've still got a rough road ahead of us."
     Cloudland's Tolley led all scorers with 27, while his opposing center Josh Jones had 20.
     "We didn't step up in the first half," Jones said. "You can't play a half of a game and expect to win. They had their home crowd helping them through. We weren't expecting them to play us like they did. It's home court advantage, they play at our house next."
     Said Smith: "Unaka's press is tough. We handled it all but two or three times. We got the ball in possession to score, and Robbie played one of the biggest games of his career.
     "He's practiced hard the last few days and I really think that's made a difference in him," Smith said. "His work ethic is really coming on. The other kids really worked hard, Josh played well. We had real balanced scoring out or Mark and Cole, Aaron Craig and Zach gave us some big minutes.
     "I believe we thought these boys were too vulnerable right now," said Chris Arnold, who had 10 for the Rangers. "They were a tough ball team and wanted it more."
     It will probably serve as momentum for Unaka, while Cloudland will have to defend their territory against University High on Tuesday.
     "I hope it does. If that don't motivate them, who knows," Ensor said. "We were in the same situation last year, but these are conference games. If you are not motivated to play them, I don't know."
     Said Smith: "I just told the kids to enjoy it tonight. But we've got to concentrate on University High, they have a good team. Coach Gordon does a good job and they've got some big players. We've got to get back and play hard here on Tuesday night."
     Rusty Chambers battled for his 15 points and Cody Collins had nine for Unaka, while Johnson had 17 for Cloudland. The Rangers host Clinch on Monday with a 2 p.m. game time.