Learning to finish teams off big key to Ranger season

Photo by Dave Boyd
Rusty Holtsclaw nets two points in the Rangers' substate victory over Cosby.

By Tim Chambers

   If Unaka wins the state championship, some of the credit should go to Happy Valley. It was an embarrassing loss on Feb. 17th at home to the Warriors that served as a wake-up call for the Rangers.
   Leading by 12 after completely dominating the first half, Unaka was destroyed by Happy Valley in the second half, resulting in an eye-opener for the entire team. Throughout the season, the Rangers had so many good teams on the ropes but couldn't finish the job.
   It started with AAA powerhouse Knox Bearden early in the season. A 16-point lead in the first half evaporated as Unaka fell 80-77 in the closing minutes.
   The Rangers led Big Nine co-champion Tennessee High by 14 in the first half without two starters playing, but an injury to Derek Cline at the end of the half aided a Viking comeback, which resulted in a seven-point Unaka loss.
   Harriman trailed by 15 late in the third quarter but eventually defeated the Rangers 81-79 at Unaka. Tied with Sullivan Central in the Cougar den with 1:30 remaining, Unaka forced some bad shots that resulted in a five-point defeat.
   The one that hurt most was blowing a 12-point fourth-quarter lead at Cloudland, thanks to some ill-advised shots and unforced turnovers. Unaka had several chances to throw in the towel during the seasons but that's not the trademark of Ranger basketball.
   The words of Unaka head coach Donald Ensor after the Cosby game, "Not once have they ever quit on me," could sum up this year's team.
   A comeback win over Celina at Pickett County proved that this team had heart. In that game Rusty Chambers was cut on the nose after scoring the first basket of the game. Chambers could have called it a night but quit is not in the Unaka vocabulary.
   With a doctor on site, he received 14 stitches but returned in the second half to score 18 points while helping lead his team to a 20-point win after trailing in the first half.
   A win on the road at Chattanooga McCallie gave indications that Unaka could win the big one. After trailing to two-time defending state champions Tennessee Temple by 17, Unaka reeled off 18 consecutive points, only to lose after Temple scored eight points from the line down the stretch.
   Unaka has encountered numerous bumps in the road during the course of this season, but a different team attitude has taken shape after the Happy Valley win.
   "It got embarrassing leading teams by double digits in so many games, yet losing the lead in the second half," said Chambers. "Coach preaches for us to be focused and we weren't playing smart down the stretch.
   "We decided that if we were going to go anywhere, we had to start playing like a team and not worry about who did what. We want to win a state championship. That's our goal.
   "Our coaches have worked so hard that we would love to win it all for them and our fans."
   The past three weeks Unaka has given Stoney Creek something to be proud of. Cline's free throw at the end of the game against Cloudland to win the District 1-A championship gave the Rangers confidence heading into the regional as the number one team.
   Then, after leading University High by seven with two minutes remaining, the Bucs stormed back to tie the game.
   But unlike the regular season Unaka didn't wilt. Rusty Holtsclaw's bucket off a pass from Chambers at the buzzer clinched a spot in the sub-state.
   Tyler McCann's play against the Jr. Bucs was the key factor in the win. And who can forget Holtsclaw's 26 points?
   The Rangers got an outstanding defensive effort by Cody Collins against Hancock County to win the regional on the Indians home floor. Josh Jones rebounded for a 12-point performance while Chambers tossed in 10 fourth-quarter points.
   Cline had three key treys in the game. Josh Lowe, Chase Reeves, Tee Blevins and Mike Walsh played well off the bench, with Lowe hitting two crucial buckets in the championship.
   Unaka hosting the sub-state delighted Ranger fans, but an old-time rival stood in the way of Unaka's fourth trip to the state tournament. Cosby had a rich tradition in Murfreesboro. You could pencil the Eagles in almost every year in the late '90s. They were battle-tested in these situations. But this was a different Unaka team they would face.
   Cosby led the entire way and had a 10-point advantage going into the final quarter. That was another chance for the Rangers to fold but again they refused to quit.
   After cutting the lead to eight and a timeout, the Rangers came out in a full court press. As Cosby walked to inbound the ball, five Ranger players smacked the floor in harmony that brought the Stoney Creek faithful to its feet. High drama was about to begin.
   Collins tied the score at 50. He tied it again at 52. His screen allowed Chambers to get open deep on the wing. Cline delivered the pass. Chambers drilled the three. Game over. The nightmares of being close so many times but falling short was no longer there.
   There was no quit in these kids. None whatsoever.
   What we know about Unaka opponent Franklin Road Academy is very little. It is a big and athletic team that loves to play a slow type of game.
   But it's what we know about Unaka that really counts. Block out the early season losses to tough teams.
   Don't focus on the leads they squandered. Forget about past history of being at the state tournament three times without a victory.
   This is a different team, different players with a different attitude. They believe in the coaches and each other.
   Most important, they believe they can win. There is optimism on Stoney Creek among Ranger basketball fans.
   With optimism lies hope that the fourth time to the big dance will be a charm.