AFTON — Hampton and Cloudland will square off for the Region 1-A boys championship after battling their way through the tournament semifinals Tuesday night, setting up a showdown between the two old rivals with home court advantage in Sub-State at stake.
The Bulldogs won a thriller, controlling the game most of the way but having to hang on to win it late in a 68-66 battle with Unaka.
The Highlanders were in charge of their game throughout, but University High didn’t go down without a fight, putting up a solid fourth quarter only to come up short 64-53.
Hampton and Cloudland will meet for the title on Thursday night at Chuckey-Doak Middle School with the winner earning the right to host a TSSAA Sectional on Saturday.
Unaka had beaten Hampton in all three of their previous meetings this year, but the Bulldogs won the one that counts.
It wasn’t easy, and they very nearly let the victory and a Sub-State berth slip away. Hampton led by 14 at the start of the fourth quarter but it took free throws down the stretch and a fortunate bounce at the horn before the Bulldogs could celebrate.
“It means the world,” said Hampton senior Wesley Murrary. “It’s been a rivalry game since our freshman year. The rivalry between Hampton and Unaka has always been there. It feels great.”
It was Murray’s efforts in the third quarter that helped open the door for the win. Hampton led 34-27 at halftime. Murray came out of the dressing room with a hot hand, riding a pair of 3-pointers to a 10-point performance in the third that put the Bulldogs seemingly out of reach at 57-43 going into the fourth.
The Rangers had other plans. They outscored Hampton 16-2 to start the fourth quarter and tied the game at 59 with 3:46 to play. From then on, it went basket for basket, point for point with the Bulldogs squeaking out the win when a full-court shot by the Rangers rimmed off at the buzzer.
Hampton coach Ned Smith said it was nice to finally get the better of the Rangers.
“This is a big win for us,” he said. “We played tooth and nail, two overtimes at their place. These kids stepped up tonight. We were up, and Unaka made a big run on us. We just kind of withstood it and made some free throws down the stretch. I’m proud of our kids.”
Hampton was led by Stanley Valentine with 20 points and 17 rebounds. Murray finished the night with 19 points, anchored by four 3-pointers.
Spencer Nave led Unaka’s scoring with 17 points. Billy Bales scored 16, including 11 in the frantic fourth quarter, and had 11 rebounds.
Rangers coach Aaron Dugger said he was happy with the way the team played in the fourth quarter to give Unaka a shot at the win.
“We couldn’t get out and run because they shot it well. It was just one of those nights,” Dugger said.
University High 53
Cloudland jumped out of the gate early on University High and had the game well in hand until the Junior Bucs made the Highlanders earn it in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 31-23 at halftime and 46-33 at the start of the fourth, University High rode the efforts of Calen Archer and Marshall Hurley to a 7-0 run to start the final period. The Junior Bucs closed to within six, but then Cloudland regrouped and booked its way to the championship round.
University High coach Josh Penley was he was pleased with the way the Bucs didn’t quit.
“About mid way through the third quarter I felt like our guys kind of flipped a switch and decided they wanted to compete,” the coach said. “It’s unfortunate for us it took until that point to get excited and play with emotion. We backed ourselves into a corner and never could get over the hump. I’m proud of our guys. We continued to fight.”
Cloudland got 14 points from Zac Potter and 13 from Taylor Whitehead.
University High was led by 19 points from Marcus Taylor, who hit five 3-pointers. Hurley scored 13, including nine during the fourth quarter rally. Seth Hilbert added 12.
The Junior Bucs close out the season with an 18-13 record. Penley said he was pleased with the way his team approached the year.
“We faced some adversity. We had some injuries to some key guys we were counting on coming into the season,” Penley said. “That’s life. Things don’t always work out like you envision them. Our kids continued to fight and made it to the region semis. I am proud of them. Hopefully this will motivate some of our young kids to get into the gym during the off season and improve their game. It’s hard to say goodbye to (the seniors), but I appreciate those guys and what they’ve done for us.”