'Landers avenge loss to Eagles

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR STAFF
mbirchfield@starhq.com
The Tri-Cities Christian Golden Eagles were looking to sing the praises of "I'll Fly Away," but it was the Highlanders who played an award performance of "Amazing Grace" by taking a 51-47 final on Tuesday night at Sonny Smith Gym.
The Eagles managed to erase a 10-point deficit in the third quarter, but Cloudland's defense proved to be the difference in the final period.
"We came out with some more pressure in the fourth quarter and connected on our inside shots and layups," said Cloudland coach Ned Smith. "This is a very much improved team this year, and they're not a ball club that is easily beat."
Tri-Cities jumped out to a 6-2 early in the first period when Tory Davis and Caleb Hunt both nailed a couple of three-points shots.
The 'Landers responded by going to the low-post, with Robbie Tolley drawing a foul inside the paint for a three-point play, which gave them a 9-7 lead with five minutes left.
Cloudland went on an 8-3 run in the final two and a half minutes of the first as Cody Jones and Jake Hughes knocked down the shots from beyond the arch.
"We didn't stay in the groove the whole game and only played in spurts," said Smith. "At times we were good, but I think the biggest key to our win was being patient toward the end."
After trailing 21-14 at the end of the first period, the Eagles cut the margin to three with a couple of field-goals coming from Luke Hampton.
Tolley went back to work on the inside to help the 'Landers stay out in front, as he finished with a game-high 18 points.
The 'Landers clung to a 28-22 lead at halftime, and came out to start the third period with several threes.
It was Craig Cooke who was feeling it from the perimeter, as he hit three treys to give Cloudland its biggest lead of the night at 37-27.
The game was starting to fall into the hands of the 'Landers, but the Golden Eagles were not about to lay down just yet.
Tri-Cities Christian went on a 14-3 run in the final five minutes to grab a one-point lead heading into the final period.
A rebound and basket from Hunt inside tied the contest at 39-39 with a minute left.
Hunt struck again with seven seconds left on a fade away baseline jumper to give the Golden Eagles a 41-40 advantage with one quarter left to settle the contest.
"We did a great job of keeping our composure after getting down, and we finally started defending their guard Cooke better and making him work on offense," said Tri-Cities coach Jerry Landers.
Cloudland came out to take control of the fourth period, using an outside jumper by Adam Stevens to regain the lead.
Mark Byrd connected on a nice layup after a steal, giving Cloudland a five-point advantage with 5:32 left to play.
Tri-Cities Christian was able to keep the game close by hitting six out of eight shots from the foul-line in the final period.
The 'Landers had an opportunity to push their lead back to five with Tolley going to the line on a one and one.
Tolley missed on his first attempt, but a strong rebound from Byrd put the ball back in the hands of Cloudland, which began thinking of clock management by running it down with 1:06 left in regulation.
"We just went out and hustled to get the win," said Byrd. "Our post players did a good job of shooting the ball and so did Cooke, and even our bench came in and played well."
Davis was able to knock down two free throws to pull the Eagles within two, and a couple of misses on the other end from Byrd gave them a chance to tie or go ahead with under a minute left.
Tri-Cities Christian became patient with the ball in the final minute of action.
With the clock winding down the Golden Eagles made several passes, but no one was quite willing to take the shot.
"I take the blame in the final seconds. I should have called a timeout and tried to settle them into a play at the end," said Landers.
A drive from Davis with under 10 seconds left ended in disaster as he dribbled the ball off his foot and into the hands of Byrd.
Cook went to the free-throw line and sank both of his two attempts with just one second left to play, as Cloudland avenged the loss it received from the Eagles a few weeks prior.
"Down at Hampton in the Christmas tournament was one of our worse games, so it feels good to come back and win," said Byrd. "I have the utmost respect for those guys and their coaching staff -- they're a good team."
Lady Highlanders 60
Lady Eagles 31
It didn't take the Lady 'Landers long to adjust and up-tempo the contest, as they cruised to a 60-31 rout over Tri-Cities Christian.
The Lady Golden Eagles played the 'Landers close in the first period of action, with Valerie Kain carrying the load inside. She went onto finish as the game's high scorer with 16 points.
"We came out flat and for a while we were trading buckets it seemed like," said Lady Highlander coach Matt Birchfield. "We had some trouble stopping the big girl inside and it took us a while to get in rhythm."
Kayla Blevins responded for the 'Landers down-low by pouring in five points during the first quarter, with Cloudland clinging to a 12-8 at the end of the period.
The 'Landers increased their defensive pressure along with pushing the ball up the floor during the second period to obtain a 31-13 advantage by halftime.
Jessica Lunsford led Cloudland in the second quarter by scoring six points, while both April Williams and Heather Banner contributed four apiece.
"We went to a more up-tempo type game and they didn't match-up with us that well," said Birchfield. "We were able to get a lead up on them and do a good job on the transition."
Cloudland continued its domination throughout the third period by outscoring the Golden Eagles 20-9 in the third period.
A lay-up at the buzzer off the fast break by Jessica Davis gave the 'Landers a 46-22 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
The lead increased to as much as 36 points, after Lunsford hit a shot just inside the three-point line with six minutes left.
Cloudland came out to score the first eight points of the fourth quarter in securing the victory on the evening.
Banner led the 'Landers on offense with 12 points, while Williams, Lunsford, and Blevins all finished with double-digits.
"I'm pleased with how our defense played -- it was pretty good tonight -- and I'm happy to see it. We'll need to defend well during conference play this season."