University High basketball coach Justin Penley didn’t feel his team played its best on Tuesday night.
Still, it was plenty good enough for the Junior Bucs to get a marquee win over Unicoi County in the late game of the 23rd annual Hardee’s Classic at David Crockett High School.
With outstanding guard play by Marcus Taylor and Seth Hilbert combined with Joseph Phillips knocking down some key shots from the outside, the Junior Bucs won 60-47 in the opening-round matchup.
“It’s good to get a win over Unicoi, and it’s good to get a win the first night of the Hardee’s,” Penley said. “If you don’t win the first one, you can’t win the tournament. I told our kids we got a win when I didn’t think we played extremely well.
“It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t smooth by any stretch, but often that’s the case in the early season. Our timing was off a little bit, but we got after it and fortunately we made enough plays to stretch out our lead a little bit.”
Taylor, who was feeling under the weather after the game, ended with a game-high 22 points. Phillips added 10 points, including a pair of crucial 3-point shots.
“Three games in and Joseph is shooting it really well for us,” Penley said. “Marcus, he’s a playmaker. He’s a scorer, just somebody who knows how to put the ball in the bucket. Seth is more of a steadying influence. Each of those guys led us at different points in the game.”
If the play in the backcourt wasn’t enough, Calen Archer, Marshall Hurley and Nate Berning neutralized the Blue Devils’ play in the post.
Led by Archer’s 10 points, the trio accounted for 20 points overall.
Executing their offensive gameplan, Junior Bucs were particularly effective moving without the basketball and making cuts to the basket.
Most of all, they didn’t fold when the Blue Devils turned up the heat.
“They were pressuring us in the second half and we handled it pretty well,” said Hilbert. “It’s a good win for us. I know last year we got a (first-round) win over Crockett, and that got us going. It’s great to do that again. Hopefully, we’ll get to the championship of this tournament.”
The Blue Devils (2-1) struggled to knock down shots, particularly from the outside, where they hit just 3 of 15 behind the 3-point arc.
“As I said at our media day, we’ve got to win games on the defensive end,” Unicoi County head coach Michael Smith said. “We’re not good enough offensively, especially right now, to beat people on the offensive end.
“We have to win on the defensive side of the ball and we gave up 30 (points) in the first half and 30 more in the second half.”
Nic Chambers led the Blue Devils with a dozen points. Ethan Rice tallied 11, while Keith Arrowood also finished in double digits with 10 points.
Still, the offensive execution was lacking, evident by Unicoi County trailing 30-20 at the half and 43-28 at the end of three quarters.
“University High did a good job moving without the basketball, passing, screening and all those things, and we didn’t do a good job of that,” Smith said. “Take nothing away from them at all. They did what they needed to do to beat us.
“Still, I think we can use this game to our advantage. We can watch film and see the mistakes we are making. We can work on those areas in practice and get better.”
University High moved on to face host David Crockett in a semifinal game on Friday. Unicoi County is pitted against rival Happy Valley in a losers’ bracket game.