Rangers prove game in loss to Hilltoppers

By Wes Holtsclaw

   JOHNSON CITY -- A big question surrounding the Unaka boys basketball team has been how they it handle its battle against one of the state's top AAA squads in Science Hill.
   During the Roundball at the Palace's showcase matchup on Friday, the Rangers fought from a big deficit early to close the gap to eight.
   But despite foul trouble with point guard Jerome Odem, the Hilltoppers got a solid game from Brandon Frye and pulled away from Unaka, taking a 74-53 victory at the Topper Palace.
   "I knew they would be ready to play, but I was hoping we would be a little more ready," said Unaka head coach Donald Ensor. "When you play a team like that, they're going to force the tempo and we've got to adjust a lot quicker to that."
   Unaka played catch-up after the first and third quarters against Science Hill, but respectably held their own.
   Ranger senior Rusty Chambers shot the ball well, leading both teams with 19 points, while inside duo Josh Jones and Rusty Holtsclaw tallied 11 apiece.
   Science Hill coach Mike Poe was had nothing but kind words about the Rangers.
   "Unaka has a real nice team. I like them, I really do," Poe said. "They play hard and they play until the final horn."
   "I thought our energy was pretty good early. I question a little bit of our conditioning because I don't know if we're conditioned yet," he said. "We had five come out of football and it's going to take some time for that."
   The Rangers did a good job of taking Odem out of the game with foul trouble.
   Odem is a reason for the success of Frye, who ended up with 16 points including four trifectas to lead Science Hill.
   "When Jerome picked up his third foul and fourth foul, I thought we had a lot of people come out there and do some pretty good stuff," Poe said. "But we're going to go as he goes."
   "(Frye) hit three or four in a row," he said. "The thing is, Jerome creates many of those shots for him. When he's not out there, he doesn't get many of those shots. (Jerome) gets down and always knows where Frye is."
   Unaka trailed 22-9 after the first half due to the quick defensive pressure of Science Hill.
   The Rangers got their offense going more effectively in the second quarter behind Chambers and Jones, closing in on Science Hill.
   A few mishaps hurt Unaka and put Science Hill in scoring position. The Toppers wound out with a 14-point lead going into the locker room.
   "We've got to have the simple plays," Ensor said. "We can't have the open passes fly off the tips of our fingers, you can't miss the block out assignment that makes you miss the kick out for a three."
   "We knew coming in who we really had to defend," he said. "We got screened on the baseline and it cost us three uncontested threes and they all three went in. You've got to fight that stuff a little harder."
   The third quarter was reminiscent of the first for the squad. Science Hill pulled away with big buckets from Corey Davis and a future star in freshman Omar Wattad.
   The Toppers took an 18-6 edge in the period.
   Unaka outscored Science Hill 18-13 in the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late.
   Despite a relatively strong showing against a tough team poised to challenge for another state title, Ensor is still stressing things for his unit to work on.
   "We did settle in during the second quarter and got in the rhythm of playing," he said. "Of course, Mike (Poe) is pretty good at taking you out. That staff recognizes that pretty quick. You just can't do those things. Those are simple basketball plays and you've got to make them.
   "There's things out there in a basketball game that our program has taken pride in for years," he said. "Whether it's Science Hill or whoever, those are things we do well and we're not doing them well right now."
   Davis tallied 10 for Science Hill as its only other player in double digits. Wattad and Hunter Thomas had eight points apiece, while Odem only had seven points.