For 32 minutes of regulation and three and a half minutes of overtime, Eli Rasnick failed score a point for Unaka in Tuesday night’s District 1-A boys’ basketball championship at Science Hill on Tuesday night.
However with the game on the line, Rasnick drove the lane and scored the winning basket in the Rangers’ 62-60 win over Cloudland.
It led to the Rangers’ first district championship in eight years as Unaka improved to 17-10 with the win. Cloudland, which had a chance to tie at the free-throw line with two seconds left, fell to 22-10 with the loss.
“All game, it was rough and I couldn’t catch a break,” Rasnick said. “I was looking to get it to one of the open shooters, but I saw the open lane and figured I’d shoot a lay-up and put the game away. It feels good to finally be back on top.”
There were 14 lead changes and 10 ties in a game that more than lived up to the hype.
Cloudland dominated most of the first half, leading 26-16 midway through the second quarter. However, the Rangers scored the final nine points of the second quarter to go into halftime with a 27-27 tie. From that point on, it was fighting tooth-and-nail with neither team able to gain a clear-cut advantage.
“Cloudland is going to come out punching,” Unaka head coach Aaron Dugger said. “It was just a matter of us taking some punches and throwing some punches back. They threw some, we threw some and it was just a good high school basketball game.
“These kids, especially these seniors, have been through so much adversity their whole four years. I’m so proud of them. They’ve worked for this and they deserve every bit of this.”
Playing in front of a crowd packed nearly to the rafters of the new Science Hill Gym, Spencer Nave scored 17 points and tournament Most Valuable Player Billy Bales racked up 16 points and 10 rebounds in the Rangers’ victory.
“I love playing them. That is what basketball is all about,” Bales said. “One through five, this is the toughest conference every night. Every possession matters and that’s the way basketball should be.”
Cloudland had three players end in double figures led by Dylan McClellan with a game-high 20 points. Devin Whitehead had 13 points and Zac Potter scored 10 points. Taylor Whitehead grabbed 10 rebounds in the tough loss.
Highlanders head coach Brandon Carpenter hopes history repeats itself and his can do as last season and follow up a loss in the district final with a regional championship.
“Unaka’s kids played hard and our kids played hard. We just made a few mental errors we usually don’t make,” Carpenter said. “We obviously wanted to win the district championship, but our main goal is to win the regional championship and we can still accomplish that if we tweak a few things here or there. We feel we have as good shot as anybody next week.”
Hampton (boys) 43
University High 41
Cody McClain made 7 of 8 free throws down the stretch including a pair of game-winners with 10 seconds left to lift the Bulldogs (19-14) over the Junior Bucs (17-12).
On the final possession, Stanley Valentine intercepted a pass to secure the Hampton victory.
McClain ended with 14 points and Valentine added 10 to lead the Bulldogs in a clash of styles pitting University High’s outstanding guard play against Hampton’s strong inside prescence.
“We made some big buckets down the stretch and got the ball where we wanted it,” Hampton head coach Ned Smith said. “Cody made some free throws and we finally got the monkey off our backs in the tight games. We didn’t panic and got a big stop at the end.”
Marcus Taylor tallied 20 points to lead University High. Marshall Hurley added seven points, all of them coming in the final period.
“The difference in the game is they made more plays at the end,” University High coach Justin Penley said. “The bottom line is who is going to make a play with the game on the line. X’s and O’s go out the window at a point, you have to have kids step up and make plays.
“They triple-teamed Marcus at the end, but of course that’s what you’re going to do. But, the game wasn’t lost on the last couple of possessions. We made enough mistakes early in the game to allow that to happen.”
Both teams must go on the road for Saturday’s Region 1-A quarterfinal matchups with season eliminations on the line.
“There’s no time to feel sorry for yourself at this point,” Penley said. “You have to circle the wagons, regroup and go after it hard the next three days in practice to get ready for Saturday night.”