Rangers eek past Highlanders

By Tim Chambers
STAR CORRESPONDENT
tchambers@starhq.com

   Friday night's District 1-A boys championship game was to basketball fans what the Mona Lisa was to Leonardo Da Vinci: Nothing less than a masterpiece.
   Before a capacity crowd at Steve Lacy Fieldhouse, the Rangers squeaked out a 46-45 win in overtime over Cloudland in a game that wasn't decided until after time had expired.
   "It feels great to win the district," said Unaka guard and all-tournament selection Derek Cline, whose free throw with no time remaining won the game. "This was a huge win heading into the regional."
   Unaka scored first on a jumper by Tyler McCann, but Cloudland answered with four points from Robbie Tolley.
   Cody Collins launched a three from deep in the corner giving Unaka a 5-4 lead, but Cloudland answered with six unanswered points on buckets from Mark Byrd, Tolley and Jon Pritchard to take a 10-5 lead.
   Unaka refused to fold, knocking down consecutive treys from McCann and Derek Cline to take an 11-10 lead after one.
   "I tried to step up and be a leader tonight," said McCann. "This was a total team effort."
   Unaka opened the second quarter in fashion when Rusty Chambers found McCann open on the box for two, giving Unaka a 13-10 advantage. Cloudland answered with a 7-0 run, capped off by two jumpers from Aaron Stocton and Tolley, gaining a 17-13 lead.
   Unaka reclaimed the lead on a steal and layin from Collins and a three-ball by Cline. Rusty Holtsclaw's jumphook gave Unaka a 20-18 lead but a Tolley turnaround knotted the score at 20.
   Tyler McCann's jumper at the buzzer gave Unaka a 22-20 lead at intermission.
   Said Collins: "I was trying to keep Craig (Cooke) from scoring because he killed us at Cloudland. We don't worry about who scores or anything -- we just do whatever it takes to win."
   Cloudland tied the score early in the third on a nifty move from Stocton, but Unaka took a 25-22 lead on a three-point basket from Chambers. Tolley closed the margin at one, but Cline answered with his third trey on the evening, giving Unaka a 28-24 lead.
   Unaka rose up again when Chambers found a wide open Josh Jones on the box for two, giving the Rangers a 30-24 lead. After a timeout, Cloudland responded with four points from Tolley and Stocton, cutting the Ranger lead to two.
   Stocton collected a game-high 11 rebounds to go along with eight points.
   "Rebounding is my biggest asset so I tired to hit the boards hard tonight," Stocton said. "It was a tough game for anyone to lose."
   Unaka answered when Chambers found McCann wide open on the baseline for two, upping the advantage at six. Byrd's three points to close out the quarter cut the margin at 34-31 after three.
   Unaka started the fourth quarter with a bang as Chambers found McCann again for a 36-33 lead. Byrd followed suit with one of his eight assists on the evening, finding Tolley on the baseline to cut the lead back to one.
   The game remained tight for the entire quarter as Jones and Tolley swapped free throws, with Cloudland gaining a two-point lead. The Highlanders received a severe blow at the 1:25 mark when Tolley was whistled for his fifth foul with Cloudland up 39-38.
   Holtsclaw's two free throws gave Unaka a 40-39 lead. Unaka upped the lead to three and had a chance to put it away, but Chambers missed the front end of a one and one and Cline misfired on his second attempt after converting one, giving Cloudland one last chance.
   Byrd took the ball the distance and Mr. Money paid dividends, knocking down an off-balanced three at the :02 mark to send the game into overtime.
   "It wasn't designed to go to me but I realized I had to take the shot at the three-second mark," said Byrd. "It just happen to go in."
   Cloudland drew first blood on two free throws from Jon Pritchard to go up 44-42. A free throw from Chambers cut the lead to one at 44-43.
   Stocton converted 1-2 at the 44-second mark giving Cloudland a 45-43 lead. Unaka refused to die as Chambers drove the lane and misfired but gathered the rebound and was fouled at the :22 second mark.
   Chambers knocked down both tosses, tying the game at 45 to stage another showdown. The Highlanders worked the clock until the five-second mark, when Byrd launched one from the foul line that missed, and the ball bounded away as a scramble ensued for the loose ball, and Cloudland was whistled for a foul with no time remaining.
   Cline stepped to the line with no time left on the clock and calming sank the free throw, setting off a melee among the packed house at Milligan College.
   McCann led Unaka with 13 before fouling out in the fourth period. Cline added 11 to the cause.
   "I just wanted to end the game and not have to go into another overtime," said Cline.
   Chambers was held to six points on 1-of-4 shooting, but did manage to dish out a game-high 11 assist while adding 10 rebounds, being named tournament MVP.
   "Coach (Ensor) told me to be patient and not try to force things," said Chambers. "There is so much more to the game than scoring, so I just wanted to do whatever it took to win the game. I would rather have a team championship than an individual award anytime. Neither team deserved to lose."
   Coach Donald Ensor added: "Cloudland did a great job. Tolley's big and athletic and played more minutes tonight than I had seen him play. Byrd is nothing but a winner.
   "I felt like we stuck to our gameplan and it was a total team effort. Rusty (Chambers) did a great job finding the open man time and time again and didn't force any shots. These guys don't care about individual stats. Winning as a team is all that matters and this was a great victory for our school and our fans."