Lady Rangers,  'Landers will again play for top honors

By Michelle Pope
STAR STAFF
mpope@starhq.com

   For the third straight year, the girls' District 1-A tournament championship game will bring together Unaka and Cloudland.
   Semifinal action was held on Tuesday. In the first game held at Milligan College, Unaka held its ground in a close match with North Greene for a 52-47 victory. The Lady Highlanders pushed off from an early lead to defeat University High 43-29.
   At the end of the first quarter, the Lady Rangers were up by one, after four points each from Julie Roberson and Danielle Ensor. Unaka junior guard Jessica Osborne scored three of her game-high 22 points with a trey in the first frame.
   "I felt like Danielle Ensor stepped up, especially in the first half, and Jessica Osborne and Renee Ensor really stepped up and played pretty good halfcourt," said Unaka girls' coach Kenneth Chambers.
   The Lady Huskies' leading scorer on the night, senior forward Kimberly Wilcox, carried her team by dropping eight early points. After Chelsea Wright added a basket, North Greene had ten points to trail Unaka by one.
   North Greene coach James Buchanan said that the Lady Rangers are a tough team to play. "Unaka has a lot of size. We teach our guards to double down and keep them from hurting us down low, but if they shoot the ball like they did tonight, they're a tough team to beat," he said.
   More steady scoring from Danielle Ensor and Osborne kept Unaka in the lead at halftime, as they each put in four points in the second quarter. The Lady Huskies posted a nine-point second quarter to make the game 21-19 in Unaka's favor at the half.
   "North Greene played hard, and played really good defense," said Coach Chambers. "They slowed the ball down on us a lot."
   The third quarter was the point in the game that Unaka finally put a significant gap on the scoreboard. Osborne hit two goals from behind the arch and added a jumper for eight points. Renee Ensor added a three-point goal and an inside basket for five points, while Coty Townsend and Roberson scored a basket apiece to give the Lady Rangers a 17-point quarter. A team effort put 13 points through the hoop for the Lady Huskies.
   "We depended too much on trading baskets there in the third quarter when we really needed to be making a run, and we just ran out of time," said Buchanan. "They've got good guards, good quick kids. They made the free throws down the stretch. We couldn't get key stops when we needed to."
   In the final quarter, Wilcox tried to pull her team through with another eight points, but with Osborne and Renee Ensor putting down shots for Unaka, it was difficult to overcome the Lady Rangers' lead. Add five Husky fouls in the last 42 seconds that put the ball in Unaka's hands twice, and sent Osborne, Renee Ensor, and Danielle Ensor to the foul line for four more Ranger points, and Unaka found themselves on their way to the championship game.
   Osborne scored 22 points for Unaka, while Roberson and Renee Ensor put in ten, and Danielle Ensor sunk eight points. Wilcox led North Greene with 21, and Wright scored 12 points.
   The game between Cloudland and University High had a slow start, as the opening shot from Heather Banner didn't come until more than two minutes of strong defensive action. Other than a free throw by senior guard Jo Thomas and a last-second Kristy Bennett three-pointer from about 25 feet back, the Lady Jr. Bucs had trouble battling through Cloudland's tough defense.
   "I think our defense really won the game for us," said Cloudland coach Matt Birchfield. "We kept them to 29 points. It was a big effort, defensively. They've got some good players - that 33 (Dyana Bowers) is good. We did a good job on her and kept her contained to a minimum."
   During the second quarter, the scoring was more evenly distributed, as the Lady 'Landers scored 13 and University High scored ten points. Senior forward April Willams put down two baskets from inside while Jessica Ledford sunk two field goals from just inside the three-point line. The Lady Jr. Bucs went six of eight from the penalty stripe, and Thomas and Katie Crowe each added a basket.
   "I think that started us," said Birchfield of his team's defensive effort. "Then offensively, we really stepped up. April Williams and Heather had some big baskets, and Arnold got the foul shots. That's what we needed."
   The third quarter was almost a repeat of the first, as Cloudland dropped ten unanswered points while holding University High to a Bowers trey and two free throws from Tory Vance.
   "We missed so many easy shots," said University coach Amy Horton. "I kept encouraging them throughout the first half that those easy shots would fall, but they really just never did. We got good looks at the basket, but we just didn't take our time and get the shots that we needed."
   In the final quarter, Bowers fought hard by scoring eight points, and Liz Denton made an aggressive drive inside for a layup, but the Lady 'Landers matched the Jr. Bucs' ten points with a six-player team scoring drive.
   "Defensively, I felt like we did a pretty good job on them on the inside and out, but offensively, we just could not get it going tonight at all," said Horton.
   Williams scored a game-high 14 points for Cloudland, followed by Banner and Kayla Blevins with six each. Bowers led University High with 11 points, as Bennett added six.
   Cloudland and Unaka girls will battle for the championship at Steve Lacy Fieldhouse on Thursday. Tipoff will be at 7 p.m.
   "It's a big rivalry, a big game," said Birchfield of the upcoming game against the Lady Rangers. "We're just going to go back and do things we've always done and play hard. We've got to cut down on turnovers and do a good job blocking out. Their post players are great."