By Matt Myers
Unaka’s Hannah Tipton showcased her talents both offensively and defensively amidst a 16-point, five-steal championship round outing for the small schools district tournament MVP award.
Her performance, coupled with a newfound balance in the Lady Jr. Rangers’ scoring prowess and turnover-causing transition defense allowed the stalwarts from Stoney Creek to roll to an almost uncontested 39-22 title victory over Central Thursday night at historic VanHuss- White Gymnasium.
Great attacking of the basket was the highlight offensively for the Lady Jr. Rangers throughout the early going and into the second quarter. One such slashing perimeter drive by Kaytlin Cox at the 2:08 mark of the first quarter netted the youngster a 3-point play amidst a 6-point outing and sealed a 6-1 run that soundly placed the offensive momentum Unaka’s side of the floor.
A 10-1 first quarter followed for the Lady Jr. Rangers, and Tipton’s 3-point play to begin the second quarter, coupled with a press defense that seemingly built a concrete wall on the halfcourt stripe, fed a stifling Unaka transition game that would amass a 21-4 lead at the intermission.
Keena Taylor’s deep three during her five-point evening as well as a beyond-the arch-tally from Tipton were the highlights of a Lady Jr. Rangers second-half charge that would ultimately lead to a 33 lead heading into the final period.
Strong attack of the basket and stingy defense in the press game were once again the hallmarks of Unaka’s dominance in the second half. Although Summer Miller and Stephanie Carriger would turn in solid nights for the Lady Comets with seven and six points, respectively, it was the Lady Comets’ inability to really ever find a scoring rhythm that went on to further aid a determined UMS assault that knew only one gear, fourth.
The game’s final period was characterized by the Lady Jr. Rangers’ ability to maintain and even extend their sound advantage via youthful depth from the bench. Unaka head coach Lacey Dugger was impressed with not only her starters’ improvement, but also with the ability of her young players to maintain and close as well.
“We had a great team effort out there tonight and it was great to see a lot of improvement in our team at the championship level,” said a jubilant Dugger after the game. “Whenever you play for a championship, you want the whole team to be motivated and I really feel that the girls were tonight. It was impressive to see them attack to build the lead as well as work off the bench to close it. We have a bright future as a basketball team.”
Cox, Madison Mann and Taylor all received all-tournament nods for Unaka while Ashley Harrison, Summer Miller and Stephanie Carriger achieved the same for the Lady Comets.
To play in VanHuss-White Gymnasium is to play in the shadow of East Tennessee basketball greatness. Baughman, Dugger, Honeycutt, the 1960 state championship squad, the legends watch the winter games come and go, immortalized in youthful photographs that line the blue and white walls of the gym’s entranceway.
Each one of them knew the mental and physical tolls to be paid along the path to top spot glory, and with roundball toughness they paid them. With a win over a tough and speedy Central Comets squad, the Little Milligan Buffaloes proved that they are also willing to pay a heavy toll to see their own middle school hoop run remembered.
Charlie Butler got the Buffaloes’ patient spread offense on track early with good movement without the ball, allowing the youngster to cut wide open for a deep corner trey to cap a 7-0 Buffalo run out of the gate.
A beyond-the-arch tally stood as the first for the youngster on a night that he would garner four 3-pointers for a 12-point shooting-guard clinic for the tournament Co-MVP.
At that point Central counteracted in spades, via its speedy transition game with Jose Burgos at the helm. Burgos showed why his skills are already diversely lethal for defenders as he followed two quick attacks on the basket with a deep contested three from the top of the key to tie the game 9-9 at the end of the second.
The offensive spurt signaled the beginning of an amazing night for Burgos as he would finish with a game-high 32 points.
Another trey from Butler coupled with the post dominance of Jose Velazquez en route to a 13-point, 10-rebound double-double for the co-MVP allowed the Buffaloes to pull away to a precarious 25-17 lead at the intermission.
The Comets continued to chip away at the Little Milligan advantage early in the second half as Josh Hammonds began to emerge alongside Burgos in the transition game, amidst an 11-point scoring display on the night for the all-tourney selection.
However it was the superior shooting of Tim Hartley and Butler that would allow the Buffaloes to extend the second-half margin to an insurmountable margin. Hartley’s second trey from the corner off a Butler feed late in the third, three of the standouts 12 tallies on the evening, extended the Buffalo lead to double digits.
A Dakota Crumley three-point play at the 3:30 mark of the fourth quarter counteracted the strong transition play of Burgos and Hammonds and extended the margin to 14.
Although the speedy comeback effort would continue from the proficient transition scoring duo of Burgos and Hammonds, Little Milligan’s ability to diversify the scoring load ensured that it would all be too little, too late. Afterwards, winning Little Milligan skipper J.R. Campbell expressed not only his satisfaction in his team’s play, but respect for the Buffaloes’ hard-playing opponent as well,
“I am very proud of these boys and what the level they have played at all year,” said Campbell in the bedlam of the trophy ceremony. “Anytime you get to compete against a classy, championship-caliber team like Central with Coach (Lamont) Barnett and win a championship, you’re happy all around. Everything about tonight was special.”
The Buffaloes will host regional action tomorrow night against Bluff City and Sullivan County schools.
All-tourney selection Linda Espino paced Keenburg (5-5) with 13 points to elevate the Lady Tigers to a consolation win over the Lady Buffaloes (3-10).
Shaylin Depew tallied four, as did Tyler Messer, for the Tigers.
All-tourney selection Tori Cable led Little Milligan with eight points while teammate Autumn Reece scored six in a tough, youthful effort that came up short in the face of a physically superior and experienced Keenburg squad.
All-tournament team member Abram Hill excelled amidst a Jr. Rangers victory over Keenburg.
Hill tallied 13 points while teammates Kyler Lewis and Jacob Day tallied eight points apiece within a balanced Unaka scoring attack that produced seven players with at least four points.
Logan Frost was the lone bright spot for Keenburg in the face of the dominating Unaka effort as he tallied 14 alongside teammate Evan Carter’s seven.