Mentally tough Rangers stop Happy Valley

By Jeff Birchfield

STAR Staff

   When it counted, Unaka showed mental toughness taking a 62-56 win over non-conference rival Happy Valley in boys prep basketball action Friday night at Bayless Gym.
   Down the stretch when the pressure was on, the Rangers' young players stepped to the free throw line and converted on 11 straight attempts. By contrast, the Warriors, who did provide plenty of fight, missed on three crucial one and one attempts.
   "We're capable of doing that," said Unaka coach Donald Ensor about his team's pinpoint accuracy at the charity stripe. "We've shot well until the last two or three games. We have good shooters, so that's why we don't even mention it in practice. It's not been mentioned in the pre-games. Tonight, they were more in the game and they walked to the stripe and made them."
   Even HV head coach Charlie Bayless agreed free throws were the big difference in the game.
   "They made their foul shots down the stretch," said Bayless. "According to coach Ensor, the last game, they couldn't make one. They missed about 17 in that game, but tonight they shot well. We missed three crucial ones when we needed them. When you miss those foul shots, it takes away from your offense."
   No one was better at the line than Unaka's Derek Cline. The sophomore point guard hit all six of his free throws in an 11-point effort.
   "We've been practicing foul shots real hard," said Cline. "The last couple of games we had been missing real bad, so we concentrated real hard in practice. Coach told us to just play our game. It was real big to win here. They gave us our first loss at home earlier in the season and we wanted to come down here and get it back."
   While Cline was solid all night, the Rangers received top scoring efforts from inside players Rusty Chambers and Josh Jones. The two post players camped out under the basket, scoring 19 and 14 points respectively in the Unaka win.
   "One thing I like about this team is that we can play fast or we can play in the half court," said Ensor. "I think Josh Jones with his strength in the half court and Rusty with his mobility allows us to do that. This team has a lot of room for improvement and we can do that. We just don't need to do what's been in our history lately, to win a big game and take the next one off.
   "We have basically taken last year's JV and played a varsity schedule with them this year. We lost nearly 60 points a game that we graduated. We filled it, but we're not where we need to be. We are capable of playing well, but, it's mental four to one over physical with us right now."
   On the other side, it was Senior Night at HV and no one could be disappointed in the play of the three Warrior seniors. Point guard Cody Whitlock was a ball of fire, playing at a faster pace than anyone else on the court. He led the Warrior team in scoring with 12 points. Not surprisingly, Happy Valley's second and third leading scorers also came from the senior class.
   Bobby Morton was a scrapper inside, fighting for loose balls and connecting on a couple of put back buckets in his 11 point effort. Stephen Williams had the Tribe's lone basket behind the three-point arc, dropping in nine points.
   "I appreciate all of those seniors," said Bayless. "They played great. I thought they all played well. Cody did a good job breaking the press and I thought he shot pretty good. Bobby did a good job under the boards and got some offensive rebounds.
   "We could have folded after we got blew out by Central earlier this week, but we came back and played two good games. It was a battle tonight, but it was a good game."
   Besides the fourth-year players, Happy Valley also had multiple scores from freshman Todd Caldwell and junior Tim Whaley with four points apiece.
   The game was a nip and tuck affair until the final stretch. The two teams were deadlocked at 14 as they finished one quarter. Moving ahead, Unaka used excellent ball movement at the end of the half with Rusty Holtsclaw's lay-up at the one second mark putting them on top 31-26 going in the locker room.
   After free throws by Chris Arnold and a basket by Jones stretched the Ranger lead to eight, Happy Valley pulled within five at the end of the third quarter, when Williams' launched a trey right before the buzzer. Although they got the lead down to one midway through the fourth period on a basket by
   Jordy Harrison, the Warriors could never retake the lead as Cline and the boys made them pay every time they were sent to the line.
   "Derek Cline played well tonight," said Ensor. "He's our point guard. He's learning and he's playing tougher. He's got a long ways to go, but he's only a sophomore. I was well pleased with how he played tonight."
   Next up for the Warriors (5-20) is a make-up game with Johnson County on Monday night atop Warrior Hill. The Rangers (15-15), recently crowned Watauga Valley champs, will return to action on Monday when they face Watauga Conference powerhouse Sullivan Central.