'Landers subdue Unaka

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR Correspondent

   The Cloudland Highlanders was singing the tune of sweet revenge after avenging their loss of two weeks ago, as they subdued Unaka for the first time since February 8, 1994 in a 54-42 final at Sonny Smith Gym.
   The 'Landers' only conference blemish this season was against the Rangers, which ended with Unaka prevailing by a 24-point margin at home.
   "We practiced hard all week and came in sticking with our gameplan, and we were a lot more patient tonight than we were at Unaka," said Cloudland coach Ned Smith, whose team will share the Watauga Valley Conference title with Unaka if the 'Landers beat Clinch at home Monday afternoon.
   The 'Landers were ready for the highly-anticipated duel, as they primarily kept Unaka's Aaron Dugger and Ben Cole from ever becoming a factor.
   "Cole and Dugger are two of the best players in Upper East Tennessee, and I told the guys that you have to get a hand in their face," said Smith.
   Dugger led the Rangers with 11 points, which was well below his average, while Cole was restrained to scoring just two.
   Cloudland jumped out to a 4-0 lead to start the contest when Kevin Jones drove inside the paint for the two.
   The Rangers answered back with a three from Dustin Collins, after Cole went to the hole with the ball and kicked the pass back outside.
   The 'Landers extended their lead to 9-3 when Caleb Denton grabbed the rebound with the put back.
   Unaka found itself in trouble during the first few minutes of play, as Cole picked up three quick fouls, which caused him to sit out for the remainder of the half.
   Cloudland went up by as many as 11 points in the period, when Mark Byrd knocked his second three-point goal on the night with 2:15 left.
   The 'Landers enjoyed an 18-8 lead after the first quarter, as they came out delivering blows and confusing the Rangers on executing their offense.
   "You have to give Cloudland credit. They out played us in every facet of the game," said Unaka coach Donald Ensor.
   Unaka just couldn't quite get themselves in sink during the first-half, despite the contribution coming from Rusty Chambers, who came off the bench to score 10 points.
   The 'Landers had controlled the tempo of the game, and it wasn't until 52 seconds remaining that Dugger was able to capture his first points by hitting two free-throws.
   At the half, Cloudland owned a 28-17 lead with the momentum in their corner.
   The Rangers didn't make much headway in the third quarter, as it started off with a rejection on a Collins three-point attempt, and a three from Denton on the other end.
   "It's beyond me why we didn't come out ready to play in a conference championship game," said Ensor.
   Cloudland continued to hold its advantage during the third, with their its score coming off an offensive rebound from Kyle Jones, making it 39-28.
   In the last quarter of action, the Rangers made one last effort to get themselves back in contention.
   Cole finally made his way on the scoring chart, drawing a foul underneath and hitting two free-throws at the 4:33 mark.
   A three-point shot from Dugger and another one from Collins shrank the deficit down to five, which was the closest the Rangers had been since the first period.
   But Cloudland's Ricky Whitehead stepped up in the closing minute to convert a huge basket down low and draw the foul, making it a 10-point interval once again.
   "We played as a team tonight," said Whitehead. "The coach put in some new defenses, and we executed them to a tee."
   Whitehead led all scorers with 12 points, while teammates Kevin Jones finished with 11, and Denton with 10.
   "This is great," Whitehead said. "We hadn't beat Unaka since the 93-94 season, and it's untelling how long it's been since we have tied for a conference," said Whitehead.
   If Cloudland can win in its meeting against Clinch, it will give the 'Landers their first claim to a share of a conference title since 1968.