Warriors score crucial triumph over Cougars

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR STAFF
mbirchfield@starhq.com

   Getting off to an up-and-down start this season, Happy Valley fell way behind in the chase of the conference race.
   It was uncertain as to how the Warriors would respond for the remainder of their schedule, and possibly find a way to still compete for the Watauga Conference season crown.
   On Friday night, the Warriors took one step closer to laying claim to the season title by defeating Sullivan Central in a final of 59-58 at Bayless Gym.
   "This is the biggest win we've had in three or four years, and we beat a good ball club here tonight," said Happy Valley coach Charlie Bayless. "We pressed them man-to-man, and I thought Chris Rutledge and Ryan Toney did a good job on defense."
   Happy Valley dropped their first two conference games of the season and was 5-4 after their first ni
ne match-ups.
   Of late the Warriors have reeled off four straight wins to put themselves one game out of first, with Unicoi County left on the league slate, while Central takes on Volunteer, which could produce a three-way tie if the Cougars win.
   The Warriors had to step up their defense in the final minutes to capture the victory against Central, as a block from Chris Rutledge gave Happy Valley the game-winning possession.
   "There's been a big difference with how our team has been coming through lately," said Rutledge. "It's going to be tough winning the conference tournament, but hopefully our team can hang in there and give it all we got."
   A drive from Rutledge sent him to the free-throw line with 9.7 seconds left, where he hit one of two foul shots to give Happy Valley the final point to decide the contest.
   The Warriors were paced throughout the night with the post play of Alex Carroll and Tim Whaley.
   Carroll was unstoppable by pouring in 24 points and grabbing 13 boards, while Whaley finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
   The two combined for 23 of the Warriors 31 first-half points, as the Cougars were unable to defend them inside.
   Central led after the first period of play 20-14, with eight points coming inside the paint from Matt Dunford, and 10 points from Joe Brown after knocking down a couple of threes from outside.
   "We couldn't stop him inside, but they couldn't stop Alex either," said Bayless. "After the first quarter I thought it was going to be a blow-out for them. They are good shooters."
   The Cougars pulled out to a nine-point advantage to start the second period, but a 12-2 run in the last five minutes gave the Warriors a 31-30 lead at halftime.
   "Happy Valley played well, and Coach Bayless did a good job of having them prepared," said Sullivan Central coach Tony Vaughn. "We made some mistakes, and in the game of basketball you have to control the boards and get yourself to the free-throw line. That's something we didn't do."
   Dunford carried Central through during the third period, as he had all but two of their points, and finished with 24 points at game's end.
   Central clung to a 42-39 margin with under three minutes left, but a three-point basket from Jeremy Maddox and field-goal down low from Carroll handed the lead back to the Warriors at the end of the third.
   "Carroll kept on coming down at our end and would score," said Vaughn. "We're just going to keep playing and try to figure out the conference seeding as we go."
   The Cougars got off to a fast start in the beginning of the fourth quarter, as a three-pointer by Philip Weatherford and shot inside from Dunford gave the early advantage to Central.
   The lead swapped three times in the final four minutes, and a pass from Todd Caldwell to Carroll inside the paint tied the contest at 58-58 with 1:05 left.
   "I knew I was going to have to step it up and get some rebounds, and when ever I posted up everybody was looking for me down-low." said Carroll.
   Central came down looking for the go ahead bucket, but a shot from Daniel Skelton and block from behind by Rutledge created a scramble for the loose ball out of bounds giving the possession to Happy Valley.
   The Warriors ran down the clock on their last series, and a drive from Rutledge sent him to the free-throw line for the opportunity to win the game.
   Rutledge sank the first foul shot but missed the second one, which gave Central one last shot to pull out the victory.
   A three-point shot from Brown rimmed short, and a missed tap by Dunford at the buzzer drops the Cougars back into a conference tie for second with Happy Valley.
   "It feels good, and at the first of the year we knew we had the potential to go all the way," said Carroll. "We started off in a slump and then all of us got together and started doing team work, so it's like being together in one big family now."
   Lady Warriors 36
   Lady Cougars 35
   The Lady Warriors were absolutely dominate all game long. Well, almost all game long as a sluggish fourth-quarter performance nearly surrendered their victory over Sullivan Central.
   Happy Valley enjoyed a 33-19 lead after three periods of action, but missed opportunities inside and at the foul line almost gave the Lady Cougars the come from behind win.
   "We came after them on defense and got some steals and easy baskets, which really helped us get a lead," said Happy Valley girls coach Ben Godsey. "Overall I thought we played a good game. We're still battling hard but just need to become more consistent."
   The Warriors grabbed the lead in the first period and never relinquished it except for a brief period to start the second.
   Keila Williams and Terra Whaley showed their presence inside early as they established the post to give Happy Valley a 10-9 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
   Whaley led the Warriors in scoring with 12 points, while Williams added 11 points and grabbed the most rebounds with 13.
   "We played really hard together and didn't have a whole lot of turnovers, which we do sometimes," said Williams. "We were getting after it, and I thought we played better than what the score was. We had a lot of shots that didn't fall, including mine."
   Jennifer Rankins knocked down a three-point basket to start the second period, which gave the Cougars a two-point advantage and their only lead of the night.
   A three-point basket from Mandy Byrd with under a minute to go enabled the Warriors to head in with a 17-13 lead at halftime.
   "I thought in the first half we played a lot better than the score indicated, because we got good looks and didn't convert," said Godsey. "We really controlled the boards for the most part, I thought."
   Happy Valley came out in the third period to go on an 8-2 run, after a drive and shot inside the paint by Brandi Dugger made it 25-15 with 5:03 left.
   The Warriors dominated the boards on both offense and defense for most of the contest, but by not being able to convert the put-back, it kept the Cougars within striking distance for the final period.
   Happy Valley went cold in the final eight minutes and saw a 33-19 advantage shrink, but this was certainly not the same case for Central.
   "Happy Valley was packing a zone and dared us to shoot it, and we were missing a lot of them, but late in the third and in the fourth we finally got some shots to fall," said Lady Cougar coach Ron Surcey. "It was just a little too late before we started hitting."
   The Cougars hit four three-point goals with two of them coming from Catie Munal, who led the team with eleven points on the night.
   Happy Valley managed to hang on after missing three of their last four free throws, as it saw its 14-point lead diminish down to one by the he end of regulation.
   "We did what we had to do to win at the end, but missed free throws made it more difficult," said Godsey.