'Landers get past Rangers

By Wes Holtsclaw

   Both teams fought it out.
   With a tied contest less than 30 seconds remaining, the Cloudland Highlanders and Unaka Rangers each controlled their own destiny in the District 1-A championship contest.
   Cloudland's Josh Johnson was fouled and made one of two from the charity stripe putting the ball back in Unaka's hands. The Rangers took the ball and ran the clock down to the final seconds.
   Stingy defense from the 'Landers didn't leave too many options open, but Daniel McInturff crawled around a Cloudland defender and released the ball beyond the three-point arch with two seconds left.
   "We had two plays set," said Unaka coach Donald Ensor. "We came out and got a great look."
   The ball floated as the packed Steve Lacy Fieldhouse was on its toes. Both coaches stood firm and every player stood still.
   The ball then hit the back of the rim and bounced into the hands of Cloudland's Mark Byrd and the Highlander fans broke the silence.
   "It was a great shot," Ensor said. "But it didn't go down. Byrd had some looks like that at our place and they couldn't go in. That's the way it goes."
   Byrd was fouled, but missed the one and one and collected the rebound as the Highlanders topped Unaka 43-42 to win their first boys district championship since a 46-45 victory over Lynn View (Sullivan North) in 1968.
   "It was a two and three-point game all the way," said Cloudland coach Ned Smith. "It was anybody's game down to the end. Robbie (Tolley) and Aaron (Stocton) played stellar and Mark (Byrd) played one of the greatest games off their press. I thought that was the difference in the game."
   It was a dramatic conclusion to a back-and-forth defensive effort that the Rangers led through three quarters, but they couldn't escape with their fourth straight district crown.
   Cloudland finished second in the conference after an eye-opening loss at University High. Smith had no doubts in his teams capability of pulling it out.
   "I had no doubts in them," he said. "We didn't play well at University High and we were down a bit. The kids came back and have played hard. The hard work pays off."
   Unaka led by as much as nine in the contest early after some strong runs from Cody Collins and Rusty Chambers. But Cloudland bounced back behind some Tolley deuces to cut it within three at the end of the first half.
   "I didn't come down in the latter part of the game as it did midway," Ensor said. "We took some shots out of character in the third quarter and Cloudland wouldn't allow us to establish the kind of game we wanted."
   Josh Johnson and Cole Gouge battled with Josh Jones and Derek Cline throughout the third as Unaka held on to a one-point lead.
   Both teams fought it out in the fourth quarter, but some big free throws from Stocton put Cloudland in a solid leading position.
   "I knew I had to stay focused," Stocton said. "That's the key, just to concentrate and try my best. It all came out good in the end."
   Cody Collins struck back at Cloudland to tie the contest before Chambers and Tolley swapped buckets, pushing it down to the wire. Cloudland got the ball with under two minutes to go, but a turnover from Gouge put it back in Unaka's hands.
   "They had the lead and we couldn't let them hold the ball, so we had to trap them," said Ensor. "We got the turnovers we wanted and had our opportunities."
   Collins missed a clutch trey and Cloudland took it with 1:18 left before Johnson was fouled.
   "Cody came ready to play," Ensor said. "Jones did good inside and Rusty didn't have the game he wanted with two on him down the stretch. Early we had the pace and had to play sound, we couldn't keep them off the boards and that hurt us."
   Collins and Tournament MVP Tolley led the game with 15 points apiece in the contest.
   "Unaka's a good team," said Tolley. "Coach Smith put in some new things for us tonight. We stepped up and played well."
   Said Collins: "The game went well on offense. We missed some key blockouts there in the second half and they got too many second chances. Hopefully we can build our confidence back up and come out ready to play in the regionals."
   Both teams had a lot taken out of them during the contest. Cloudland lost its three-point shooting, finishing 0-11, while Unaka lost post Rusty Holtsclaw to a foot injury.
   "It was a big loss," said Josh Jones. "Losing Holtsclaw hurt us, but we knew we had to step up and play our hearts out. We made some mental mistakes and you can't do that in tournament time.
   Said Mark Byrd: "It was a big win. Unaka's got a good team, they are well-coached and very athletic. I think it was the hustle from the guys that don't get a lot recognition. Loose balls and steals, they did it."
   Stocton rounded out Cloudland's double-digit scoring with 11 points, while Chambers and Jones had 10 apiece for Unaka.
   NOTES: Chambers, Jones and Collins were all-tournament selections for Unaka, while Stocton and Byrd wound out Cloudland.
   The 1968 Cloudland Highlander team won the district title, finished runner-up in the regional tournament with a 60-59 loss to Science Hill and was the last Cloudland team to make it to the state tournament.
   Conference, District and Regional MVP Sam Rogers helped Cloudland topple Memphis Frayser 64-55, before the team lost to Nashville Stratford 66-48 in the second round of the state tournament.
   Cloudland opens regional play Monday with an 8:30 contest against Washburn, while Unaka plays Tuesday against Jellico at 5:30.