Ezell-Harding fends off feisty Rangers

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   MURFREESBORO -- Like a dog refusing to obey his master, the Unaka Rangers refused to roll over against the state's top-ranked team on Wednesday.
   The Rangers put forth a valiant effort in a 54-42 defeat to the Ezell-Harding Eagles in opening-round play of the TSSAA State Basketball Tournament at the Murphy Center.
   "I'm extremely proud of them," Unaka head coach Donald Ensor said. "We came down here to play the No. 1 ranked team, and we fought. We had a missed shot here or there, and a missed block-out assignment here or there or I thought it maybe would have been turned the other way."
   The Rangers gave it all they had in this one, but the Eagles were just too strong on the boards. Ezell out-rebounded Unaka 39-28 in the contest, and Ensor thought that was key.
   "They're so athletic, so big, so strong and so quick," Ensor said. "We had a hard time checking them out."
   It looked like Ezell was going to cruise after the first quarter. Unaka hung tough early, as the Eagles only led 17-13 after one.
   The Rangers went cold in the second stanza. Unaka finished the first half shooting only 8-of-26, and Ezell-Harding led 29-18 at the break.
   "We had some jitters because we hadn't been here," Unaka senior Aaron Dugger said. "We were trying to get our feet wet there in the first quarter."
   By the time the third quarter had come around, the jitters seemed to be long gone.
   Ezell led 36-23 with 3:28 to go in the frame, before a basket by Ben Cole started an incredible run.
   After the basket, Dugger stole the inbound pass and hit a jumper to cut the Eagle lead down to 36-27. The Rangers then forced another turnover, and Cody Collins came through with a big three-pointer to make it a 36-30 game.
   The 9-0 run to end the quarter was finished when Cole hit two free-throws, which made it 36-32 Ezell-Harding going into the final frame.
   "We got the game going a little bit more at our pace," Ensor said. "We made some shots, and got back in it."
   Dugger, who led all scorers with 24 points, knew the team wasn't going to quit.
   "We knew we were going to play for 32 minutes," Dugger said. "We had to play hard because we knew they were capable of getting a big lead."
   The Eagles started getting to the foul line in the fourth quarter, and pulled ahead 47-39 with 4:30 to go in the game. But a big mistake gave the Rangers one last chance.
   Dugger was fouled on a three-point shot attempt by Antoine Owens, putting him at the line for three shots. The standout made all three attempts to pull the Rangers within five at 47-42 with 3:58 left in the contest.
   Ezell also had a hard time putting Unaka away because of the foul shooting. The Eagles hit only 13-of-33 from the foul line, while Unaka hit 7-of-9 from the charity stripe.
   But the Eagles were just too tough down the stretch, as their defense put the clamps on Unaka in the final minutes. Ezell held the Rangers scoreless, and hit just enough free-throws to seal the deal.
   "We dug us a little bit of a hole, but we were still in striking range," Dugger said. "But every time we would cut it to four or five, they would raise it up and they would score.
   Dugger also thought Ezell figuring out a tough Ranger press late was key.
   "Our press got them a little out of whack," Dugger said. "They took a timeout, and got that straightened up. We played hard. We left it laying out there."
   Cole, who finished the afternoon with 11 points, also thought the Rangers put it on the line in this contest.
   "We came out and played hard like we always do," Cole said. "That's one thing we live on is playing hard. We don't ever want anybody to play harder than us. We got out-rebounded, and that's what killed us, I thought."
   Cole and the Rangers did a good job of shutting down Vanderbilt signee Julian Terrell. The Mr. Basketball finalist was held to 12 points, but did have 13 rebounds.
   "He's a good player," Cole said. "He's one of the better ones we've seen. I thought we defended him pretty well, we just didn't check him out too well."
   Terrell was not too pleased with the Eagles' performance.
   "We never overlook any team," Terrell said. "The way we stepped in there today made it look like we did overlook them, but we don't do that. Every team is going to be good, especially when you get to the state."
   Ezell-Harding head coach Chris Burnette left the floor with a lot of respect for Unaka.
   "They are a very hard-playing team," Burnette said. "They got after loose balls, and they played defense. And they go to their key people that can score for them."
   Erik Davis led the Eagles with 17 points, while Owens finished with 16.
   The careers of Cole, Dugger, Dustin Collins, Josh Blevins and Kevin Estep all came to an end Wednesday. They have a lot to be proud of, as this team was the first Unaka squad in 14 years to make the state tournament.
   "It's been a great experience," Cole said. "It's something I'll never forget. I'm glad I came to Unaka. It's one of the best things I've ever done."
   The Rangers will be younger next year, but Ensor hopes the team can build on what they've accomplished.
   "I think this is very big for our program," Ensor said. "I think it's big for our young kids. We've got one junior in the program, the rest of them are sophomores and freshmen. I hope this opened their eyes to the hard work and determination, and the off-season work that can enable them to do something like this. I don't want this to be the last time this team comes."
   Unaka finishes the season at 25-12, while Ezell-Harding improves to 26-4 on the year. The Eagles will play Halls on Friday.