Heaton's '54 buzzer-beater a tournament treasure

By Jamie Combs
SPORTS EDITOR
jcombs@starhq.com
In the early to mid 1950s, Paul Heaton was often to the Cloudland High basketball team what the keeper of the flame was to a tribe of cavemen.
Known for heating up gymnasiums with his scoring prowess, Heaton, in the 1954 District 1 tournament quarterfinals, delivered a game-winning bucket that still burns brightly in the annals of area postseason play.
Sinking a 48-foot shot at the final horn, Heaton catapulted the Highlanders over Holston Valley by a 51-49 score inside Dobyns-Bennett's Sprankle Gym.
"I just turned and shot it, and it went in," said Heaton this week from his Pawleys Island, S.C., home. "There was just enough time to take the inbounds pass and take the shot. The buzzer went off while the ball was in the air."
Fifty years after his bomb busted the bottom of the intended net, Heaton, a member of Cloudland's distinguished 1,000-point club, reflected on how it felt to play the role of buzzer-beating hero.
"It was a real thrill to do that," he said. "Good things have happened to me my whole life."
In addition to breaking the hearts of the Rebels, Heaton broke three District 1 tournament records that contest, establishing new single-game marks in points (34), free-throw attempts (20) and free throws made (14).
The 'Landers needed that type of performance from their junior guard, as their game with the Rebels saw the score become tied 13 times.
Cloudland was trailing by two points in the final minute of play, but a Heaton bucket and free throw sandwiched around a 15-foot basket from Sonny Smith handed the 'Landers a 49-46 lead with 15 seconds left.
Holston Valley, though, issued a response. Billy Smith hit one of two free throws, failing on the second attempt, and Jim Johnston tipped in the miss to even things up.
With only two seconds to work with, the 'Landers quickly got the ball to Heaton for the stunning finish. When Heaton let the ball fly, he thought he had a real chance of making the shot.
"I really did," he said. "I thought it had a good chance to go in, and it did."
The story behind the story, said Heaton, began two days earlier, when Highlander coach Clark Morton had his squad practicing on the Dobyns-Bennett floor.
"Coach went out of the gym for something, and one of the other kids and I started shooting real long shots," Heaton said. "Coach came back in and caught us. He really got on us."
Following the game, however, the story behind the story ended with Heaton telling Morton, "See, I told you that practice would help."
Although the 'Landers would see their season end with losses to much larger schools in their next two games -- first to D-B, then to Tennessee High -- they enjoyed one of the best campaigns in school history.
Including tournament action, Cloudland suffered only four defeats while posting 25 victories, packaging a 21-game winning streak along the way (the loss to D-B ended the streak).
Heaton's brother Robert was a very good player for those 'Landers, as was Vernon Crain and Smith. Jim Julian, Jimmy Burleson and Carroll Miller proved to be solid performers, while Mack Jarrett, D.B. Honeycutt and Bobby Johnson contributed to the team's success.
The mightiest sparkplug that season was certainly Paul Heaton, who nabbed the 1953-54 Watauga Conference scoring title, averaging just under 21 points a game.
"We were a small school and weren't supposed to win many," said Heaton, who registered a 36-point performance vs. Training School late in the season. "I did all right. I had a lot of good help."
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Heaton's single-game scoring mark was eclipsed the night after the Holston Valley tussle as Stan Johnson of D-B hit for 41 against the 'Landers. Heaton's free-throw marks may or may not still be standing.
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Other facts and figures related to Cloudland High basketball follow:
BOYS
TWENTY SEASONS AGO (1983-84), the 'Landers' Rodney Stocton captured the Smokey Mountain Conference scoring championship, averaging 18.6 points per game.
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TWENTY FIVE SEASONS AGO (1978-79), Todd Burleson tickled the twine for 33 points while sparking the 'Landers to a 61-53 road win over Northwest Ashe (N.C.).
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THIRTY SEASONS AGO (1973-74), Grady Hill seized Highlander records for most points in a game (46), most regular-season points (700), average points per contest (25.0) in a regular season, and average points per contest (24.9) for all games in a season -- four marks that still stand today.
Hill's 46 came in an 84-29 Highlander homecourt victory over Washington College Academy, and his 25.0 average earned him the Watauga scoring title.
On a different note from that season, Cloudland and Chuckey-Doak waged a five-overtime war in Roan Mountain, and the home team managed to walk away with a 72-68 triumph.
The 'Landers put four players in double-digit scoring, with Hill and Barry Stocton netting 19 points apiece, Danny Cooke totaling 17, and Freddy Julian chipping in 11. Don Hill had the other six points for the 'Landers, who overcame Doak's combined 49-point effort from Lloyd Rollins (29) and Mike Wilhoit (20).
Met with foul trouble early in regulation, Hill became a factor in the deep stages of the game, helping the Dallas Williams-coached club win the wild and woolly affair.
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SIXTY FIVE YEARS AGO, near the end of the 1938-39 season, the S.H. Evans-coached Cloudland Eagles -- Eagles was the school nickname at the time -- snapped a 10-game Happy Valley winning streak by taking a 31-25 decision on the Roan.
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GIRLS
TWENTY YEARS AGO (1984), Coach Ronnie Hicks' Lady Highlander club upset top-seeded and eventual regional champion Unaka 42-41 in the semifinals of the District 1-A tournament at Chuckey-Doak, accounting for one of the bright lights in the history of the Cloudland girls program.
For Hicks, the win came against his former team as well as the team he would coach once again.
Cloudland was trailing late in the fourth quarter, but a Shannon Roark bucket pulled the Lady 'Landers within a point, then Tammy Bare, who tallied a game-high 18 points, gave the Roan Mountain squad a 40-39 lead by nailing a perimeter shot with 34 seconds remaining.
Bare would add a pair of free throws to give the Lady 'Landers a three-point edge, and seal the outcome.
Crystal Orr contributed some fine outside shooting in the second half as the Lady 'Landers gained their first district championship berth in the modern era.
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FIFTY SEASONS AGO (1953-54), Jackie Honeycutt tossed in 25 points against a hosting Hampton team, lifting Cloudland to a 46-41 win.
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FIFTY FIVE YEARS AGO (1949), Loretta Gouge's 15-point performance propelled the Cloudland ladies past Hampton in the District 16 final at Unaka, 41-37.
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SIXTY YEARS AGO (1944), Cloudland rode a 17-point effort from Anna Mae VonCannon to defeat Happy Valley 25-24 in the District 16 championship, which was held at Unaka.