The Bucs outhustled and outplayed Harriman to earn a 45-33 win in Monday’s TSSAA Class A sectional at Brooks Gym. It gave University High its first state tournament berth since 2008 when the Bucs advanced to the semifinals in coach Justin Penley’s first year.
Eleven years later, Penley preached defense and rebounding to get University High back to Middle Tennessee State University. His winning sermon came on a night when both teams struggled offensively. University High hit 16-of-41 from the field and Harriman was 13-of-35.
“We came in here with a game plan and our kids executed it,” Penley said. “Harriman is a better team than they showed tonight, but our team was just locked in. They continue to play hard. We made sure we contested shots and boxed out. Offensively, we weren’t efficient tonight, but it wasn’t from lack of effort. You’re going to have nights like that, so that’s why you have to have as the foundation of your program, the ability to defend.”
Kaleb Meredith led the Bucs (29-5) with 10 points and eight rebounds. However, Meredith went just 2-of-9 from the field. He missed much of the game with foul trouble and later when he had to switch uniforms because of blood on his jersey.
During a stretch in the second half when both Meredith and point guard Marshall Fleenor were out of the game, the Bucs actually increased the lead.
“That was the most amazing feeling you could ever ask for,” Meredith said. “Of course, I trust them, but there is usually a load on me to produce. To know my shot wasn’t falling and Marshall and I weren’t in the game, it gives me so much hope for the rest of the postseason.
“You see it in practice. The guys who don’t see the floor as much are still out there working hard and that’s what makes us a deep team.”
Fleenor added, “Our teammates were on point tonight and they really moved the ball. As a team instead of taking a good shot, we took the best shot. It’s nice to know when Kaleb and I are out of the game, they’ve got our backs.”
Meredith spurred on University High early, and his 3-point shot with a second left on the clock to gave the Bucs an 18-16 halftime lead. The Bucs dominated much of the third quarter, pushing the lead to as many as 14 points before taking a 35-26 lead into the final period.
Charlie Vargo added muscle inside and finished with eight points overall. But, he commented the game was won more on the gritty plays than the pretty plays.
“That’s what we focused on going in,” Vargo said. “Every day in practice, coach is like rebound and that’s all we do. It’s all defense and box-outs. We knew it was a win or go home game. For me as a senior, this is what I dreamed of.”
It was truly a team effort as Colin Daniel, Jake Hubbard and Fleenor all scored seven points.
Tredin Copeland paced the Bulldogs (27-8) with 11 points and Jaylen McCullum added eight. Harriman wasn’t able to get much production otherwise as no other player scored more than five points. University High held a 31-22 rebounding advantage, including 10-4 on the offensive end.
“We were getting extra scoring opportunities, and we were also limiting their offense,” Penley said. “They wanted to play fast because they have what I call “spurtability” where they can put a run of 6-8 points together in a hurry.
“We were able to limit that for the most part with the way our kids sprinted back on defense and fanned out. We wanted to limit their opportunities, their second-chance opportunities and for the most part we did that.”