Rangers get past 'Landers

By Matt Hill

   If you think Broadway has big plays, you should have seen Friday night's District 1-A Boys Championship game.
   But when it came down to crunch time, the Unaka Rangers played their parts perfectly.
   The Rangers outscored Cloudland 8-0 in the final 3:08 to defeat the Highlanders 50-42 at Steve Lacy Fieldhouse and in the process, took the District 1-A title for the fourth time in five years.
   The game was tied at 42-42 with just over three minutes to go, but Unaka head coach Donald Ensor thought the Rangers did what they needed to do down the stretch to pull off the win.
   "We competed with them on the offensive glass and the defensive glass," Ensor said. "I think that was very important late in the game. We hit our free throws down the stretch, but Cloudland's got a good team. I think Carter County's going to be very well-represented in District 1-A and District 1-AA."
   It was definitely a great night for Carter County basketball, and the game at Milligan College went right down to the wire.
   Things seemed to be going Unaka's way early in the fourth quarter, as the Rangers were leading 39-33 with 5:30 left to play in regulation. But that was before Cloudland's Caleb Denton hit a 3-pointer, and was fouled on the play.
   Denton missed the free-throw attempt that could have cut Unaka's lead down to two, but he made up for it on Cloudland's next possession by throwing a perfect pass to Robby Tolley. Tolley made the bucket to cut the Rangers' lead down to 39-38.
   Denton finished the night with 19 points.
   "Caleb played out of his mind," Cloudland head coach Ned Smith said. "Caleb played the best game he's played all year."
   Cloudland did eventually tie the game at 40-40 before things started to fall apart. The first bad sign came when Kyle Jones hurt his ankle with 3:47 left to play.
   Unaka was ahead 44-42 when the second dose of bad news came. The 'Landers were looking to tie it up, but Kyle Jones was whistled for an offensive foul, which was his fifth.
   To make matters worse for the 'Landers, Ricky Whitehead was also facing foul trouble, and eventually fouled out in the final seconds.
   With all that adversity facing Cloudland, Smith was still proud of the way his team hung in there.
   "The guys sucked it up," Smith said.
   Denton thought that losing those guys was a huge setback for Cloudland.
   "They're great players," Denton said. "We needed them."
   The Rangers did what they had to do down the stretch. Up 44-42 with 2:35 to go, Unaka ran 1:27 off the clock before Aaron Dugger was fouled with 1:08 left. Dugger hit both free-throws to make it a 46-43 Ranger cushion.
   Cloudland had two chances to cut the lead, but missed shots on both possessions. Ben Cole was fouled and made a shot from the charity stripe to give the Rangers a 47-42 lead with 18 seconds left.
   The 'Landers Josh Johnson threw up a three that missed, and Unaka shot free-throws the rest of the way.
   Unaka did its job at the free-throw line to secure the win.
   Unaka won playing Cloudland's style of basketball. The Rangers like to run and gun, while the 'Landers like to play at a slow pace.
   The 'Landers made sure Unaka was going to play their game, as Cloudland did not shoot for two minutes after the opening tip.
   "They slowed it down pretty good," Unaka guard and tournament MVP Dustin Collins said. "They got us kind of tired there in first quarter. But hey, Cloudland's a good basketball team."
   The 'Landers not only did a good job controlling the pace, but they also held the Watauga Valley Conference's MVP in check for a half.
   That happens to be Dugger. He was held scoreless for a the first two stanzas, but rebounded nicely in the second half to score 16 points.
   Dugger was definitely a marked man in this tournament. After having to go up against University High's Brandon Bradley Tuesday night, it was Kevin and Kyle Jones giving him fits Friday.
   "I got frustrated a little bit, Dugger said. "It's hard not to, but those are three good defenders."
   With Dugger being guarded heavily by Cloudland, players like Collins and Rusty Chambers stepped up for the Rangers.
   Collins hit two big three-pointers in the first half, and Chambers had six of his 10 in the first 16 minutes to keep Unaka on top 19-18 at halftime.
   Collins also finished with 10 points, but was rewarded with the MVP because of his overall tournament performance. He scored 25 in the Rangers' 71-54 triumph over University High Tuesday night.
   Collins says this is all about the team.
   "It's all about teammates," Collins said. "I couldn't do it without them, and they couldn't do it without me. And luckily we got it done tonight."
   Cole also hit double figures for Unaka, netting 11 on the night.
   Denton did all he could to win the game for Cloudland. He hit eight of his team's 17 field goals in this contest.
   "I was moving in and out," Denton said. "I was moving around more, and trying to get the ball more. They were playing very tight defense, and they were leaving some holes. I was just trying to take advantage of that."
   Unaka will play Powell Valley in its first round game in the Region 1-A Tournament at Lincoln Memorial University. The 'Landers will take on Washburn in their first matchup.
   With the victory, Unaka has avoided state powerhouse Hancock County.
   The only way those two teams can meet is in the finals.
   "They're pretty good," Ensor said. "They're pretty dang solid."
   The 'Landers will be looking to build on what's been a magical season. Smith is very proud of what his 'Landers have accomplished.
   "I'm really proud of the kids," Smith said. The kids played great. I'm just glad to be a part of it."