Cloudland held off, Rangers keep going

By Wes Holtsclaw

   HARROGATE -- The main event of last night's Region 1-A tournament gave the people their money's worth.
   Despite being down for most of the ballgame, the Cloudland Highlanders sucked it up against a bigger Hancock County Indian team. The 'Landers took Hancock to the wire, allowing them to pick up the 38-34 win in the last seconds of the game.
   The Indians and Unaka Rangers, who defeated University High 54-45 earlier in the day, will play for the tournament championship at 8 p.m. tonight.
   Hancock had a sizable seven-point lead on Cloudland with under three minutes to go in the game, but Cloudland came roaring back with some big buckets from Mark Byrd, Caleb Denton and Rick Whitehead to tie Hancock with under a minute to go.
   Rocky Nichols and Mike Matthews were both sent to the foul line, and only downed one apiece from the charity stripe. Cloudland was given the ball with 18.2 seconds left and went down the court.
   But it would be the officials who cost Cloudland the game as an unclear traveling call was given to Rick Whitehead, giving Hancock the ball with 14.1 seconds.
   It appeared as if Cloudland would get one more chance after Kyle Jones tipped the toss in, but on the other end was Mike Matthews, who jammed the ball with under 3 seconds to go, giving Hancock the victory over Cloudland.
   "I thought our kids played great," said Cloudland coach Ned Smith. "They came out, they hustled, we blocked out. Hancock County's got a great team. They are a heck of a defensive team, really hard to score on."
   It was a tough end to a great first season for Smith.
   "I'll never forget these kids. It's probably been one of the best years of my life. When the ball was tipped, they came to play. They played with everything they've got. They D'ed up and blocked out. These kids, I'm just proud of them. They played so hard."
   Cloudland came out shooting behind Kevin and Kyle Jones, who battled with Mathews and Nichols in the beginning, but Hancock took the 12-8 advantage after the first period.
   Caleb Denton came out big for Cloudland in the second quarter, nailing two straight treys from the outside, but Aaron Seal and Josh Fleenor's points would be too much as Hancock took a 24-19 lead into the locker room.
   Cloudland had several opportunities in the second quarter, going one of seven from the charity stripe.
   The second half would be guts and glory, and Cloudland summed those two words to a tee.
   Coming out and going down by a quick seven, Mark Byrd came up with two quick steals and layins for the 'Landers, who battled back to tie the game.
   Defense would be a key part of the quarter, as both teams combined for 10 points. However, Matthews nailed a key shot to give Hancock the 27-26 lead after the third period, leading to the final stretch, where Hancock took the 38-34 victory.
   The Nichols and Matthews combo gave Hancock 18 and 10 points, respectively, while Byrd led Cloudland with nine points.
   It was a tough follow up for the Cloudland seniors, who had one memorable season.
   "We've got a great group of boys," said Kevin Jones. "They work hard, and practice hard. They follow rules and listen, I expect great things from them in the next few years."
   "My career was great," said Kyle Jones. "It ended a little quicker than I would've hoped, we had a great team. A great group of boys who worked hard, day in and day out. I would've liked to seen more come from it that what it did, but we had a great season."
   "My high school career has been perfect," said Brandon Odom. "My senior year has turned out great. If we had only rebounded more and hit our foul shots we would have won it."
   Said Caleb Denton: "It's really hard to put into words. We played good tonight, and I fell like we definitely could've beat them. It's a horrible feeling, but to me the worst feeling you could have is not being a Christian. But it does feel bad to lose coming this far down the road."
   When it was all over, Ricky Whitehead stood in the 'Lander locker room, reflecting on his memorable four years.
   "I've watched people come out of this place," said Whitehead. "I've watched them cry after the last game, and I've never known that feeling. I know how it feels now, and there is nothing that can sum up how it feels to know that it was your last ballgame.
   "I'm glad to have played with my teammates, everyone of them. We bumped heads sometimes, but we should have took it farther, we should've stepped it up in the first half.
   "We would have won, but we didn't. Hancock is a good team, everybody has their weakness, and when they found our weakness, they stepped it up and wanted it more."
   Unaka 54
   University High 45
   The Unaka Rangers entered their contest with the University High Jr. Bucs knowing that it would be a tough contest.
   Going into the fourth quarter with a two-point lead, the Rangers stepped it up and delivered a big 54-45 win at the Tex Turner Arena.
   "I'm very proud of them, they extended their season," said Ranger coach Donald Ensor. "We get to go to the next tournament now, and I think that is very big. We can improve on what we were doing, of course.
   "My hat's off to Coach Gordon from University High. They played tough, they always do. They are a very talented team and he's a very talented coach."
   Unaka came out strong behind Aaron Dugger and Ben Cole, but the Bucs were too much early as Brandon Bradley and Jermaine Lomans helped them garner a 11-8 lead after the first period.
   The Rangers stepped it up a bit in the second, as they got some big plays from Cody Collins and Rusty Chambers to take the 23-21 lead going into the third.
   The third quarter was evenly matched, as Bradley duked it out with Cole and Dustin Collins. Unaka led 39-37 leading to the final frame.
   But University High would get in foul trouble, with Unaka pulling out the big shots and taking the 54-45 win.
   "I thought we came out and played really well," said Ben Cole. "UH always comes out ready to play against us. That fourth quarter we decided we needed to turn it up a little bit, and as a team we did it. I'm real proud of us."
   Said Aaron Dugger: "We played well down the stretch and made plays that we needed to make. We had people step up and hit some critical foul shots and make some clutch steals. Rusty and Cody really grew up tonight, and they helped us out."
   Unaka earns the berth to play at least two more games. However the home bid depends on its championship game with Hancock.
   Added Cole: "All we want to do is bring that substate back to Stoney Creek, and we are going to try our best to do it."
   Cole and Dugger led Unaka with 16 points apiece, while Bradley and Lomans tallied 19 and 10, respectively, for the Bucs.