ELIZABETHTON — One championship prize was restored on a night when Unaka took its first step towards another basketball title.
This past August, former Unaka head coach Donald Ensor lost his many of his prized possessions including his 2004 Tennessee state championship ring in a house fire.
Before the Rangers’ game against University High on Tuesday night, his former team surprised their old coach with a replacement ring. Later on, the current group of Rangers took their first step towards defending their Watauga Valley Conference title with a 55-35 win over the Junior Bucs.
It was settled on the defensive end where Unaka held the Junior Bucs to just 18 points through three quarters and kept leading scorer Marcus Taylor in single digits until the final period. Taylor ended with 14 points, but it wasn’t enough against a balanced Unaka attack with 16 points for Logan Carrier and 15 apiece for Eli Rasnick and Alex Baltaji.
“They can try to take Logan away, but we have 2-3 more players who can step in and make shots,” Dugger said. “We feel comfortable with them and trust them to make them.”
The Rangers are now 1-0 in the conference and 6-6 overall. UH fell to 1-2 in league play and 3-5 overall.
Still, University High trailed by just seven points early in the third quarter before Unaka scored 11 straight as part of a 19-2 run. The margin hovered around 20 points the rest of the way.
“Up and down the lineup, we did not play well tonight,” UH head coach Justin Penley said. “Defensively, we got after it in the first half, but in the second half, we ran out of steam. It’s just disappointing we didn’t play better.
“The effort was there in the first half, but for whatever reason in the second half, we didn’t play with the same enthusiasm and passion, especially when you’re missing a key part of the offense.”
Penley was referring to Joseph Phillips, who was out with a wrist injury. With Phillips relegated to the bench, it allowed the Rangers to key on Taylor with fresh body after fresh body and even use a number of double teams against him.
“Marcus is a single-A basketball player, but he’s one of the best scorers in this area,” Dugger said. “He can fill it up. You read the boxscores and he has 38 one night and 30 the next night. He can score and play the game. I told the team if he gets 30 tonight, we want it on 30 shots and to really make it hard on him.”
Dustin Estes was the next high scorer for University High with eight points.
Unaka (girls) 45
University High 44
Brandi Ensor sparked a run of seven straight points in the fourth quarter and the Lady Rangers (1-0, 3-7) held off a strong charge by the Lady Bucs (0-3, 2-4) in the opening game.
Down by three with 1.8 seconds left, a technical foul against Unaka put UH’s Taylor Treadway at the free-throw line where she hit both attempts.
Treadway, who scored a game-high 14 points, missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer for the Lady Bucs.
“We’ve been making improvements and we’re giving ourselves a chance to win in games that before we weren’t competitive in,” UH head coach Rayne Price said. “That’s because of a more focused effort for four quarters than what we’ve had in the past.”
The Lady Bucs’ zone trap gave Unaka fits early on, but Unaka finally was able to get on top after the fourth-quarter run. Despite the win, Unaka coach Wes Wright wasn’t pleased with his team’s performance.
“We’re happy to be 1-0 in the conference as a big picture goal, but there is nobody happy with the way we played tonight,” Wright said. “UH was tougher than us. We just made enough plays in the end to win.”
Same as the late stages, there were huge momentum shifts in the first half.
Unaka jumped out to an early 12-2 lead, only to see the Lady Bucs roar back with 13 straight points. University High led the rest of the half, other than the closing seconds when Unaka’s Sierra Wright scored on consecutive putbacks to tie the game at 21-21 at halftime.
Brie Nikolous, who hit a 3-point shot with 26 seconds left to keep the Lady Bucs in the game, finished with 12 points and Lexi Crouthers added an eight-point effort for UH.
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