University High scored the final seven points of its semifinal against host David Crockett to win 71-63 on Friday, and advance to the Hardee’s Classic championship for the first time.
The Junior Bucs (3-0) will face Greeneville for the championship of the 23rd annual boys’ basketball tournament. The Greene Devils held on to beat Unaka 73-67 in the second semifinal.
Happy Valley defeated rival Unicoi County 66-49 and Sullivan East routed Sullivan South 69-38 in earlier consolation bracket games.
“It’s neat to think back and this is the first University High team to make it to the championship of the Hardee’s,” Junior Bucs head coach Justin Penley said. “It’s a testament to our guys. I’m proud of the way they battled through some adversity in the first half.
“We told them to keep playing with high intensity and high effort and things would hopefully even out in the long run. We kept contesting shots and boxed out so when they did miss, we didn’t give them second and third opportunities. It’s good to see their hard work pay off.”
Guard Marcus Taylor scored 22 points to lead the Junior Bucs to their historic win. Taylor also had 22 points in UH’s opening-round win over Unicoi County. Against the Pioneers, Taylor displayed his versatility on the defensive end. He moved down to the post on a pair of possessions in the fourth quarter and forced a couple of crucial turnovers.
“I do whatever I can to try to get a win,” Taylor said. “We have some good guys down there so I didn’t have to help out too much. We’re pretty good defensively as a whole.”
Penley explained it was Taylor took it upon himself to help out his teammates. As a coach, Penley said he gives Taylor and others a certain amount of free reign.
“At one point we were in a scramble mode, but Marcus is one of those guys with great natural instincts,” Penley said. “That was just an instinctual move on his part to get that. I give those guys a lot of freedom on the court, at least at certain points of the game. I don’t want to overcoach them and let them use their natural abilities.”
Joseph Phillips was another major contributor on the offensive side, scoring 17 points including a trio of 3-point goals. Calen Archer battled inside to score 12 points, while Seth Hilbert added 10 points and controlled the action in the final stages from his point-guard position.
Josh Saults countered with 16 points for the Pioneers (2-3). Dustin Day also hit double-digits with 10 points, followed by Noah Leonard with nine points.
Crockett head coach Richard Tarlton felt the combination of UH’s talented backcourt and the his own team’s lack of experience hurt them in the end.
“They have as good a set of guards as is in our area as far as being able to handle the ball and knock down shots,” Tarlton said. “Our game plan going in was to keep the ball out of No. 3’s (Taylor’s) and No. 11’s (Phillips’) hands. We wanted to double them up and make them give it up, but we lost sight of our men a time or two and gave them some easy looks.”
Down by 11, the Junior Bucs rallied with the last seven points of the second quarter to trail 35-31 at the half.
University High still trailed by four, 52-48, heading into the final quarter. However in the final 1:10, UH stretched a 64-63 lead into an eight-point victory.
“It just comes down to what coach tells us to do and finishing games,” Taylor said. “We’re a good team and we can compete with anybody. It just came down to the final stretch and getting it done in the second half.”