Bumps encountered on way to gold ball

By Tim Chambers

   The four-lane highway leading to Unaka High School is nearing completion, but for several months motorist has encountered numerous detours and bump along the way.
   But when the road is completed, Stoney Creek will have a transportation route that people will talk about for years to come.
   Fittingly, the Unaka High School Ranger 2003- 2004 basketball season had many similarities like the new highway that is near completion. Several obstacles had to be hurdled along the way, and at times people often questioned if the Rangers could get the job complete.
   With spring's arrival, road construction teams are working long hours trying to get the project complete.
   It was during senior night against Johnson County that Unaka Rangers led by three seniors decided it was time to go out and finish a job that they started four years ago upon arrival at Unaka High School. Let the countdown begin 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1, "state champions."
   #10 Unaka 61, Johnson County 47
   A game that featured 53 fouls and 60 free throws highlighted what many thought would be the last home game ever for Rusty Chambers, Cody Collins and Josh Jones on senior night.
   The Rangers had won their seventh consecutive Watauga Valley Conference Championship but had struggled to maintain leads in the latter parts of the game.
   Unaka struggled in the first half of this contest but managed a four-point lead at the half on a three-pointer at the buzzer by Derek Cline. It stayed close throughout the third period, then the fourth quarter was all Unaka.
   Chambers and Tyler McCann accounted for 10 points down the stretch to extend the lead at 10. Hitting 14 of 16 from the foul line in the final eight minutes sealed the deal for the Rangers.
   Chambers tossed in 20 to lead Unaka, followed by Cline with 11 and McCann with 10. Collins had a nice night with nine points and four steals.
   Chambers' comments after the game would hold true for the remainder of the season. "From here out it's one game at a time," he said. "Our goal is to bring the sub-state back to Stoney Creek."
   #9 Unaka 64, North Greene 52
   This was the first game played in the District 1-A tournament at Milligan College, and Unaka wasted no time in jumping on the Huskies.
   Unaka led 16-11 after one but was able to use the fast break to perfection in the second period. After a three-point play by Rusty Holtsclaw pushed the lead at 10, Collins drilled two treys, extending the lead at 15.
   A beautiful feed from Cline to Chambers closed the half with Unaka leading 37-22.
   Josh Jones managed two buckets to start the third as the Huskies tried a diamond and two around Chambers, which allowed Unaka's offense several opportunities that it took advantage of. The end result was a 12-point win.
   Chambers led Unaka with 17, swishing 11 of 12 shots from the line. Holtsclaw tossed in 12 while Cline and McCann accounted for 10 each.
   Cline said it best after the game: "We've got to learn to finish off opponents and not let them hang around. We must do a better job of taking care of the basketball at the end.
   #8 Unaka 46, Cloudland 45 overtime (District 1-A championship)
   With the regional tournament being played at Hancock County High School many felt this was a must game for both teams. A win would place the champion in the opposite bracket than that of the Indians.
   The Highlanders and Unaka hooked up in an old fashioned dog fight as Cline and McCann nailed treys in the closing second of the first quarter to give Unaka slim 11-10 lead.
   The lead swung back and fourth until McCann's jumper at the buzzer lifted Unaka to a 22-20 advantage at the half.
   Cloudland tied the score on their first possession of the third quarter, but a three-point play gave Unaka a 25-22 lead.
   The lead changed hands on several occasions the entire second half, as neither team was able to pull away.
   Cloudland suffered a severe blow when Robbie Tolley (6-5 Sr. center) fouled out at the 1: 25 mark. Two missed free throws allowed the Highlanders one last opportunity to try, and the human highlight reel, Mark Byrd, didn't disappoint.
   Byrd's off-balanced trey was a thing of beauty, tying the score at 42 and sending the championship to overtime.
   Cloudland held a 45-43 lead until Chambers knocked home 2 of 2 from the stripe to tie the score at 45 with 22 seconds remaining in OT. The Highlanders worked for the last shot, and Byrd's shot missed the mark. Cline gathered the rebound and was fouled with no time remaining, setting off quiet a raucous.
   With ice water in his veins, Cline tickled the twine and the Rangers were the 2004 District 1A champions.
   McCann tallied 13 to lead Unaka while Cline followed with 11. Chambers was held to six points but did managed 11 assists and 10 rebounds.
   Chambers was named MVP while Cline and McCann were named to the all-tournament team.
   Unaka coach Donald Ensor added another piece to the puzzle when he stated: "I felt like we had a good gameplan and we stuck to it. Rusty (Chambers) did a great job at finding the open man time and time again and didn't force any bad shot.
   "These guys don't care about individual stats. Winning as a team is all that matters." Those words held true throughout the remainder of the state championship ride.
   #7 Unaka 72 Jellico 26
   In the '70s Bachman Turner Overdrive sang the classic hit "Taking Care of Business." Unaka acted out the song on Jellico in the first round of the Region 1-A tournament at Hancock County High School.
   With Chambers, Cline, Jones and Chase Reeves knocking down baskets early and often, the Rangers raced to a 15-4 lead after one.
   Unaka extended the lead at 27-12 at intermission, thanks to some four points each from Holtsclaw, Chambers and Cline in the period.
   The opening line for the third quarter read that Unaka sprang out of the gate like Sea Biscuit going down the backstretch.
   With hoops from Josh Lowe, Jones, Chambers and Holtsclaw, Unaka increased the lead to 25 after three. Collins contributed eight assists in the contest to lead in that department.
   I could have swore I heard Dandy Don Meredith singing "turn out the lights, the party's over," in the fourth period. After increasing the lead to near 40 at the six-minute mark, Ensor emptied the bench for the remainder of the contest.
   Chambers led all scorers with 19 while Jones rang up 11. Cline and Holtsclaw hit for 10 each, as McCann was 7 of 8 from the foul line. Ensor was very pleased with the second-half effort, and stated he like the effort.
   #6 Unaka 73 University High 71, overtime
   One of the best basketball games of the season saw two rivals lay it all out on the line while trying to gain a berth in the Regional 1-A championship game and an automatic berth to the sub-state.
   "The name of the game is 'survive,'" said Ensor, and Unaka did just that.
   This game was one for the highlight film as each team shot over 50 percent on the evening, with University shooting close to 70 during the second half.
   McCann and Collins staked Unaka to a 20-19 lead after one with some razzle-dazzle shooting.
   Cline and Holtsclaw came alive in the second quarter as Unaka took a 33-28 lead into the locker room.
   Unaka maintained a four-point lead after three behind the offensive play of two Rusty's, Holtslclaw and Chambers, as the Junior Bucs were having matchup problems against Unaka's inside players.
   After Chambers and Holtslclaw added hoops that extended the lead to seven, many thought the game was over -- but not the Bucs.
   Four straight turnovers allowed UH to edge closer, and baskets by Ryan Collins and John Tillman helped send the game into overtime.
   University High held a 71-67 advantage with 1:47 remaining, but Unaka stormed back. Holtsclaw muscled his way for two in the paint, cutting the margin at two.
   On UH's next possession Chambers drew a charge, giving the Rangers an opportunity to tie. Driving for the bucket, Chambers was fouled at the 1:12 mark, and the 6-2 senior calmly sank 2 of 2 to tie the score at 71.
   The Bucs missed a shot at the 1:10 mark and Unaka grabbed the rebound with a chance to win. The Rangers ran the weave to perfection as Cline, Collins, McCann and Chambers held the ball for nearly a minute.
   After a timeout at the 13-second mark, Chambers took the ball at the top of the key and drove the lane with five seconds remaining.
   Over two defenders, he found Holtsclaw open for a layin at the buzzer as Rangers fans stood and applauded.
   As both teams left the floor, a standing ovation was given to each team because of their efforts.
   Holtsclaw had a monster game with 26 points as the Bucs had no answer for the 6-6 junior center. McCann tossed in 14 as Collins rang up 11.
   Chambers added 10 after being held scoreless in the first half, but managed to dish out a game high 12 assists. Cline tossed in eight.
   Ensor complimented his team by saying: "Our kids showed a ton of character not to quit there at the end. We'll start preparing for the championship."
   #5 Unaka 57 Hancock 48 (Region 1-A Championship)
   The boys in maroon knew what was at stake in this game. The opportunity to host the sub-state was on the line and Unaka was not about to let this one slip out of its hands.
   Sprinting to a 13-2 lead at the 4:40 mark, the Rangers would never trail in their championship win over Hancock County.
   This night belonged to Collins, who made life miserable for the Indian guards the entire night. His quickness and hustle forced Hancock into numerous mistakes and was vital in the Unaka win.
   Lowe emerged off the bench and play brilliantly for the Rangers, tossing in key points during the second period.
   Unaka cooled off somewhat but did manage to lead by six at the half. The Rangers opened up an 11-point advantage in the third thanks to a basket by McCann and a three-point play from Chambers.
   Unaka delivered the fatal blow in the fourth as Chambers tossed in 10 points for the quarter, leading Unaka to the sub-state game on Stoney Creek.
   Chambers led Unaka with 15 while Cline and Jones tossed in 12 each. Collins accounted for eight points, six steals, five rebounds and knocked away nine balls from behind on the press.
   McCann grabbed 10 boards while Jones managed six.
   Ensor, on the play of Chambers, said: "Rusty stepped up and played well in the second half. He's played against a box-in-one, diamond two and that not going to stop. He works hard with the coaches and continues to be patient."
   Added Ensor: "Cody (Collins) was all over the floor and Tyler (McCann) plays much bigger than 6-0."
   Each player stated they wanted to win the gold ball while Chambers added: "I play for the name on the front of my jersey and that name only. We are willing to do whatever it takes to bring the gold ball back to Unaka."
   #4 Unaka 55, Cosby 52
   This is a game that Ranger fans will talk about the rest of their lives -- the one that enabled Unaka to advance to the elite eight in Murfreesboro. The game was a sellout as Snavely Gymnasium was packed to the rafters.
   Cosby came out red hot in the first, racing to an 18-13 lead. Unaka refused to back down as Collins tossed a no-look pass to Josh Jones at the buzzer to give Unaka a 24-23 lead at intermission.
   Cosby came out smoking in the third as Kevin Hall reeled off nine points, giving Cosby an 11-point cushion. Holtsclaw helped pull Unaka within 10 on a tip-in at the buzzer.
   When the Ranger defense took the floor in the fourth period, Chambers, Cline, McCann, Cline and Collins smacked the floor with both hands in unison as the fireworks were about to begin.
   McCann to Holtsclaw for a bucket got the crowd going, but Cline's three from the top of the key shook the entire building as Unaka carved the lead down at 48-46.
   After a Holtsclaw free throw, Cosby hit a basket to go up 48-45. Cosby was up 50-45, but Holtsclaw answered with a finger-roll, slicing the margin to three.
   Collins brought the crowd to its feet with a deep three, tying the score at 50. After a Cosby bucket, the "little giant" Collins tied the score at 52 with a dipsy doodle in the paint.
   Unaka forced a turnover at the 2:03 mark and held the ball for nearly 1:50 seconds before calling a timeout with 14 seconds remaining.
   It seemed as if Ensor took a page from legendary Happy Valley head coach Charlie Bayless' playbook, and it worked to perfection. The teepee had arrived at Stoney Creek.
   With seven seconds left, Chambers came off a Collins pick and took a perfect feed from Cline. Chambers squared up and launched a three over the outstretched arms of an Eagle defender that swished through the net, giving Unaka a trip to the state tournament.
   "Cody (Collins) set a great screen and Derek (Cline) threw a good pass," stated Chambers. "This is one of the greatest feelings ever."
   Coach Ensor commended the play of McCann and Holtsclaw, saying, "McCann stepped up big with his offense and rebounding while Holtsclaw hit some big shots. Collins and Cline did a good job down the stretch taking care of the ball."
   Added Ensor: "They continue to front and play behind Rusty and he continues to be patient. He made a great pass to help win the game against University High and tonight you saw him make a great shot.
   "We hope to complete our goal which is to win it all."
   #3 Unaka 41 Franklin Road Academy 39
   With five FRA players 6-4 or better, Unaka faced a tall task in trying to tame the Panthers.
   FRA jumped out to a 9-2 lead and continued to lead 13-8 after one.
   McCann had a nice quarter, as did Collins. Unaka used a trey from Cline and a deuce by Chambers to tie the score. Baskets by Cline, Chambers and Holtsclaw helped Unaka to a 20-15 lead, and Unaka held a 24-20 edge at intermission.
   Unaka attempted only six shots in the second half, but made the most of its opportunities at the free throw line.
   Unaka held a 39-35 lead late in the game, then FRA tied the score. The Rangers then held the ball for more than a minute, taking the clock from 1:19 down to 14 seconds.
   Out of a timeout, the final play was designed for Chambers but he was covered. However, McCann managed to work free off the wing, Cline found him with a swift pass and the 6-0 junior nailed a jumper at the buzzer, giving Unaka its first-ever state tournament victory.
   Cline tossed in 12 to lead Unaka while Holtsclaw added eight. Jones and Collins had six. Chambers was held to four on 2-of-3 shooting.
   This was team basketball at its best as no one cared about anything but the final score. It was the team's fourth win at the buzzer since the finals of the district, and McCann was the fourth different person to hit the last-second shot.
   McCann said it best: "We feel like anyone of us can make the shot."
   This was a proven fact.
   #2 Unaka 52 Tennessee Temple 46
   Temple came in as the two-time defending state champions but Unaka was ready and waiting. This game would feature Chambers hooking up with McCann six times for baskets as the Ranger offense was clicking on all cylinders.
   Chambers scored the first basket of the game, and Cline and McCann were scoring with ease. A McCann hoop in the closing second gave Unaka a 17-14 lead after one.
   Chambers, Cline and McCann continued to add to the lead in the second. Two baskets by McCann gave Unaka a 25-24 lead, then Chambers tossed in four free throws near the end of the half to supply Unaka a 29-24 lead.
   McCann was shooting the lights out for the game, hitting 12 of 13. Meanwhile, Unaka shot a record-breaking 10 for 10 in the second half, much to the amazement of the Murphy Center crowd.
   "I was getting open looks today," stated McCann. "Rusty was finding me wide open. "Everyone was doing their job."
   Cody Collins gave the Rangers a six-point advantage, but Temple stormed back.
   Temple had the ball down by four, but Chambers got a steal at the 1:04 mark that proved fatal for the Crusaders. With only four fouls committed in the second half, Temple had to foul Unaka three times before the bonus was in effect.
   Chambers was fouled at the 14-second mark and the 6-2 senior connected on 2 of 2 en route to a record-tying 12 of 12, 100 percent shooting for the tournament.
   McCann was brilliant with 25 points while Chambers had a stellar evening of 12 points, seven assists and two steals.
   "This is not about one or two individuals," said Chambers in the interview room. "This is a total team effort."
   "Tomorrow I will play my last basketball game for Unaka High School," added Chambers. 'I want to win that gold ball for my teammates, coaches, school and community."
   Noted Ensor: "These guys are like a big family. They won't be intimidated by anyone."
   #1 Unaka 63 Grace Academy 47 "STATE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME"
   Nearly 6,500 fans were in the stands. Almost the entire community of Stoney Creek filled the horseshoe in the lower north section of the Murphy Center. The rest was history in the makings.
   Unaka spotted Grace a 16-13 lead after one but used an amazing 25-2 run to take a lead that they would never give up en route to the state championship.
   Tournament MVP McCann started the second period with a deuce, then drilled a three-ball from deep, giving Unaka a 18-16 lead.
   A Chambers deep three extended the lead to five as the Rangers were just getting started. With Collins playing his best game of the season and Jones shooting a perfect 4 for 4, Unaka raced to a 33-18 lead at intermission.
   From there, Grace mounted a comeback and sliced the 15-point down to four at the end of three.
   Unaka refused to get rattled, though, and for Grace that meant trouble. Collins nailed a jumper, McCann hit for two, Collins found Chambers open for a bucket and Cline continued to run the team smoothly as the crowd at the Murphy Center was overcome with Ranger fever.
   Grace elected to foul to try and close the gap, which proved to be a big mistake as Unaka kept putting the ball in Chambers' hands. The 6-2 guard/forward stayed perfect from the line the entire tournament, knocking down 4 of 4 in the closing minute.
   At the 19-second mark Chambers, Collins, Jones, Cline and McCann left the floor to a Murphy Center standing ovation, leaving many fans amazed at what had just taken place.
   Yes, they celebrated but in a good way. No one took off their jerseys, not did they taunt the other team. They exchanged hugs and handshakes and several tears were cried by players, coaches and fans.
   Chambers and Collins joined McCann on the all-tournament team, but it was the gold ball and state championship that everyone wanted to talk about.
   The team was introduced as the 2004 Class A state champions from Stoney Creek, Tennessee, which was met with approval by the entire crowd.
   After the team accepted the prize trophy, the gold ball was taken to the fans, who passed the ball around for each fan to see.
   Inside the interview room after the game, the players proved to be a reflection of their coaches. Chambers, McCann, Collins, Jones and Cline each gave God credit for pouring their blessings out on them the entire tournament.
   They could have been cocky, arrogant or stated 'we told you so,' but that's not what they learned from their leader, Ensor. One must realize that all good things come from God above.
   No, we don't pray for state championships or good games, but just the fact that God had blessed each one of them with good health and the ability to play basketball was enough to be thankful for.
   Ensor's testimony made me proud that my son had endured four year of varsity basketball under his leadership.
   "If you do the right things for the right reasons, then God will reward you for it," said Ensor.
   Longtime Ranger fans Dallas Lowe, David Scott and Kyle Nidiffer missed seeing their favorite team take home the gold ball because God called them home this past season. Brandon Asher missed the opportunity to see his former teammates play for the gold ball.
   I want to think that maybe this quartet was all smiles when that final horn sounded.
   This team will be remembered as the first-ever state championship team from Unaka High School, but most importantly, players and coaches recognized the priorities of hard work, dedication and God first as the key ingredients to success.
   Whether it's a gold ball or golden streets, God indeed rewards those who do the right things for the right reasons.