If there were any doubts Unaka basketball was back, the boys from Stoney Creek erased them Saturday night.
The Rangers beat Hampton 64-58 in the first of two District 1-A boys’ basketball semifinals at Science Hill. It was the Rangers’ third win of the season over the Bulldogs and the first time in eight years Unaka (16-10) advanced to the district championship.
“Hampton has a good basketball team with great athletes, but our kids compete,” Unaka head coach Aaron Dugger said. “Our kids are undersized, but they compete and play hard. . The whole time I kept telling them to stay together. They did that. They stayed together and beat a good basketball team over there.”
Cloudland knocked off University High 63-55 in the nightcap to earn the other championship berth.
In girls’ semifinal action, top-seeded Cloudland survived a scare from Unaka to win 34-33, and North Greene defeated Hampton 46-27.
Billy Bales led Unaka’s boys to the championship game. He hit eight free throws down the stretch as part of 24-point, 10-rebound performance.
Logan Carrier scored 22 points as he and Bales made big shot after big shot every time Hampton threatened.
Bales said there was little pressure to make shots with the game on the line.
“We just had to put them in,” Bales said. “There really wasn’t any pressure on those free throws. I get in the gym a lot and shoot free throws so it felt like it was routine.”
Dugger liked how his stars responded and also the play of guard Spencer Nave assisting their efforts.
“I’m tickled to death with how Spencer has come along,” Dugger said. “Billy and Logan are big-time players who can fill it up, but Spencer sets the table for them and he had a big game.”
The Bulldogs (18-14) jumped out to a 13-2 lead early on and led most of the first half before Unaka rallied to take a 34-28 lead into the break.
It was closely contested throughout the second half as Stanley Valentine cut the margin to just a single point with less than two minutes to go and Cody McClain’s free throws with 22 seconds left had it back down to a two-point game.
Valentine led Hampton with 27 points and 11 rebounds, while McClain added 15 points.
“We lost it at the free-throw line,” Hampton coach Ned Smith said. “They made their free throws and we missed several. Every time, we play them it’s a close game, but we just came up short.”
University High 55
The Highlanders (22-9) used their depth to overcome an early lead by the Junior Bucs (17-11).
Cloudland had six players score at least six points with Taylor Whitehead leading the way with a 13-point effort. Zac Potter with 12 and Mason Carnett with 11 also hit double figures for the Highlanders.
“Our guys made the plays when they needed to make them at the end,” Cloudland coach Brandon Carpenter said. “A lot of that comes from experience. A lot of our guys have been there before and that’s a big factor.”
The Junior Bucs opened the game on a 10-2 run, but the Highlanders quickly fought back and led 17-14 at the end of one quarter.
The teams battled evenly throughout the second quarter with Cloudland holding a 32-29 lead at the half.
Cloudland maintained a lead ranging from three to 10 points throughout the second half.
UH guards Seth Hilbert and Marcus Taylor, whom Carpenter called as good as anybody around, each scored 21 points to lead the Junior Bucs. Jordan Evans added a game-high nine rebounds.
“I thought our guys played with great effort tonight,” UH head coach Justin Penley said. “Down the stretch when it was nip-and-tuck, they just made more shots than we did. That’s disappointing because you want to make them all, but the kids battled and gave themselves a chance at the end.”
Cloudland (girls) 34
Brooke Rhodes scored on a put-back with 5.8 seconds left as the top-seeded Lady ’ Landers (19-10) stormed back from 11 points down to beat the Lady Rangers (13-16).
The Lady Rangers missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 32 seconds left, and a Rhodes rebound set up a winning opportunity for Cloudland.
At the end, she rebounded Kendall Mull’s miss from the left corner for the winning basket.
“Before we came back out on the court, coach Matt (Birchfield) said the guards were going to shoot and we had to get the rebound,” said Rhodes who ended with a game-high 18 points and six rebounds. “She shot it, and I prayed it was going to go in. When it didn’t, I just knew I had to get it whatever it cost. At that stage of the game, you don’t worry about a foul -- you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do.”
The Lady Rangers’ Brandi Ensor missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer after Unaka led most of the game.
Unaka led by 24-13 early in the third quarter before the Lady ’Landers went on an 11-0 run to tie the game.
Jessee Matheson led the Lady Rangers with nine points.
“I thought our game plan was good,” Unaka coach Wes Wright said. “It was just a low-scoring game because you had to teams out there fighting. It just came down to one possession and the ball didn’t fall into our hands. But, credit Rhodes because she’s a heckuva player and she made a great play at the end.”
Cloudland’s Courtney Wilson added 11 rebounds in the victory.
North Greene (girls) 46
The Lady Huskies (22-8) limited the Lady Bulldogs (23-8) to just nine points in the first half to pick up the win.
“You had one determined team on the floor and one team that wasn’t,” Hampton coach Leon Tolley said. “The last time we played North Greene, it was probably our best game of the year. Obviously, they wanted to play us again. They came out and hit us in the nose and we just shied away. It just snowballed from there.”
The lowest point came at 7:12 of the fourth quarter when star guard Dorothy Dugger went out with a knee injury. She had 10 points to lead the Lady Bulldogs.
Mendy McNeese and Dariane Bailey each scored 13 points to lead North Greene. Laiken Morrow added 10 in the victory.