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Tall task ahead for University High against McKenzie

Jeff Birchfield • Mar 12, 2019 at 7:09 PM

University High will face a tall task in keeping its dream season going Thursday in the TSSAA Class A state quarterfinals.

The Bucs, who enter the tournament with a 10-game winning streak and sweeps of Watauga Valley Conference, District 1-A and Region 1-A titles, will face McKenzie and its 6-foot-8 senior post player Ben Austin.

It will be a showdown of teams that have beaten the previous two state champions. Tipoff is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. (EDT) at Middle Tennessee State University's Murphy Center.

UH is 29-5 on the season while McKenzie is 28-3.

"Our kids are excited. They understand the challenge, but they are a confident bunch and have the mindset they're going to compete," University High coach Justin Penley said. "They're going to play hard and let the chips fall where they may."

The Rebels are also red hot, bringing a 13-game winning streak into the tournament. The streak includes a 54-51 win over defending state champion Loretto in the Region 6-A championship. It was McKenzie's first region championship since 1974.

Austin has been the Rebels' leader with averages of 17.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. However, he was the second player who Penley noticed on film.

"Their point guard (Lucas King) is really dynamic," Penley said. "He's an excellent ball handler, who can score at the basket or shoot deep. He has a wide and varied skill set, a handful for us. Then you go to Ben Austin, who is a legitimate 6-8 and as good a player with his back to the basket as you imagine. He can also step out and shoot it behind the 3-point line. Some of the coaches who have scouted them and played them feel like he's their best 3-point shooter."

UNIVERSITY HIGH LEADERS

Kaleb Meredith, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, leads University High with 18.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. He is hitting a little over 50 percent from the field and almost 40 percent from 3-point range. He also has a team-best 89 steals.

Point guard Marshall Fleenor is part of a perfect 1-2 punch with per-game averages of 11.5 points and 3.9 assists.

"We think they're a tough matchup for other teams, and they have a lot of good players around them," Penley said. "I feel like another strength for us is going on the road in our conference and playing at places like Hampton, Cloudland, North Greene and Unaka. Those are battles when you're on the road in our conference."

The Bucs are much more than a one-man or two-man team, evident in their 45-33 win over Harriman in the sectional round. University High increased its lead over the school, which won the 2017 Class A state championship, with its two leading scorers out of the game.

Jake Hubbard, University High's senior post, has averaged 8.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Charlie Vargo is averaging 7.6 points per game, followed by Colin Daniel at 6.7 and Mason Broome at 6.3.

While his point production isn't as high, Matthew Carter has proven to be a capable backup at the point.

"This is probably the deepest team we've had and I feel that's one of our advantages over almost any Class A team," Penley said. "We can go 8-9 deep and each one of those kids understand their role. Matt Carter comes in and helps us with ball handling. Zach Rice really has bought into the defense, the screens, the box-outs.

“Each of the guys have different skill sets and are willing to do whatever it takes for our team. When you have guys like that, you have a chance to be special.”

OTHERS TO WATCH

While Austin and King have paced McKenzie most of the season, it was 6-foot-3 junior forward Nate Whitsell who led the Rebels' charge over East Robertson. Whitsell had 22 points, 18 in the second half, to lead McKenzie to a 69-57 win over the Indians and the team’s first state tournament berth since 1998.

Whitsell earlier won District 11-A tournament MVP honors, although Austin has continued to flourish, scoring 27 in the win over East Robertson.

"He's a capable outside shooter," Penley said. "He can drive the basketball, strong off the bounce. He causes a lot of problems as one can imagine. They've won at least 26 games each of the last four years, so they're very well coached and very disciplined."

STATE HISTORY

University High is making its first state tournament appearance since 2008 and sixth overall with a 2-5 all-time state record.

Then named the Junior Bucs, they made the state's final four that season after a 73-58 quarterfinal win over Knoxville Grace Christian. Josh Padgett led the way with 27 points, while William Burton had 15 points and 10 rebounds. Alex Denton and Evan Collins also hit double digits with 12 points each.

The 2003 team also reached the semifinal round with a 55-49 win over Cosby in their first game. Brandon Bradley had 21 points and 11 rebounds, while Danny Quick scored 11 points and John Tillman finished with eight.

Todd Easterling (13), Alan Brown (12) and Joey Cowan (10) reached double figures in UH’s 1989 loss to Perry County by a score of 71-61.

In 1984, Harold Jarningan had 23 points while John Shulman (12) and Steve Loyd (10) chipped in during an 84-71 loss to Frank Hughes.

In 1983, UH lost a tough 66-61 decision against Goodpasture Christian. John Phillips led UH with 24 points while John Shulman added 11.

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