Sunbright no match for Unaka cloud of doom

By Matt Hill

   Don't expect too many traffic jams in Stoney Creek around the middle of next week. The Unaka Rangers boys basketball team made sure on Monday night that the creek will clear out faster than prices go up at a furniture store after a sale.
   Unaka defeated the Sunbright Tigers 78-58 at Bayless Gym in Class A sub-state action to give the Rangers a spot in next week's TSSAA State Basketball Tournament in Murfreesboro.
   "It feels great," Unaka senior Josh Blevins said. "Words don't describe it."
   The Rangers never trailed after the first minute, and earned their first trip to the state tournament since 1988.
   "It's a great win," Unaka head coach Donald Ensor said. "My hat's off to those men. That's what they're playing like. I'm so proud of them."
   The Rangers earned their ticket to Murfreesboro playing the style of basketball they wanted to play.
   The game started off resembling a track meet, as it was being played at a tremendously fast pace.
   But Sunbright played with the Rangers in the first quarter, and survived a 13-point frame by Watauga Valley Conference MVP Aaron Dugger to only trail Unaka 23-18 after the eight-minute session.
   Still, the Rangers were doing what they wanted to do.
   "That's the way we wanted it," Ensor said. "That's exactly the way we wanted it. We wanted the game to be a fast-paced game. That's the way we play. I felt over a four-quarter period we would be on top if we could keep the momentum going at that pace, and we did.
   The Tigers continued to hang tough in the second quarter, as the Rangers only hit five second-quarter field goals. Unaka was ahead 35-26 at the intermission.
   "It took us awhile," Ensor said. "They were well-prepared. Evidently we were well-scouted, but they're a good basketball team. They can shoot it, they're strong and they rebound extremely hard."
   Sunbright was still in the game going into the third quarter, but Unaka had pretty much punched its ticket to Murfreesboro after the next eight minutes.
   Unaka ran its offense to perfection in the second half. The Rangers ran the backdoor cut very well, and were converting on just about every trip down the floor.
   Unaka led 61-37 with 1:54 to go in the third quarter, and the Rangers cruised the rest of the way.
   "We came down and shot pretty much lay-ups," Ensor said. "We worked the ball around, and the passing was extremely good tonight. They played their tails off, and they're going to Murfreesboro."
   Unaka forward Ben Cole also thought things went a lot smoother in the second half.
   "I thought we played good defense," Cole said. "We were communicating a lot better, and that's what we needed to do. I'm just proud of the whole team, and I appreciate the fans for coming. They really supported us well."
   Dugger thought the second half was full of good execution, and big plays by the boys from Stoney Creek.
   "First half we were a little jarred up," Dugger said. "We were trying to do some stuff that we hadn't really done all year, I guess because of the magnitude of the game. He told us at halftime if we execute our plays, it would be ours.
   The Rangers, like they have so many times this season, really crashed the boards.
   Unaka outrebounded Sunbright 37-21 in this contest.
   Sophomore Rusty Chambers, who tallied 12 boards on the night, thought that was going to be the difference coming in.
   "Coach said before the game to stay focused, get the rebounds, and we win the game," Chambers said. "Coach said they were pretty big, so we were going to have to box-out. I thought we came in here and did a pretty good job."
   Dugger had another big night for the Rangers, as he finished with 28 points. Getting to the state tournament has been a dream of his for a long time, so it was a very sweet night for the senior.
   "Coach always said my freshman year that this was the group to go to Murfreesboro," Dugger said. "We just kept working hard, and it didn't come.
   "We came up short last year, but we were kind of inexperienced. That really helped us, woke us up, and we worked hard all summer."
   By no means did Dugger think that Unaka's big win was easy.
   "They started five seniors, and there are no bad ones left when you get here," Dugger said. "We knew we had to come to play because they were a veteran group. Even when we had a 20-point lead, they were still fighting us."
   Cole and senior guard Dustin Collins also hit double figures, scoring 17 and 10, respectively.
   Another senior who had a solid performance was Blevins. He finished the night with eight points.
   "I had one goal in mind, and that was to go to the state like everybody," Blevins said. "We've got three more to go. That's what we want, a state championship."
   Sophomore Cody Collins also had a nice outing, as he finished with seven points. Chambers added six for Unaka.
   Dustin Stedman topped Sunbright with 17, while Drew Morgan added 15 to the Tiger cause.
   The Rangers definitely played a high-quality basketball game, and Ensor expects that to continue once the Rangers go to Murfreesboro.
   "I don't expect anything less than an improvement on what I saw tonight," Ensor said. "We're not even going to accept anything less than an improvement.
   According to Ensor, there was only one thing wrong with the night. Ensor was very upset about the Rangers having to play their game at Happy Valley High School.
   The TSSAA would not allow the Rangers to play their game at Unaka because Snavely Gym did not meet the requirements needed to host a sub-state game.
   "It was an injustice that we had to play this basketball game here," Ensor said.
   Unaka improves to 25-11 on the year, while Sunbright finishes up at 18-16.