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McKenzie downs University High in state quarterfinals; Meredith has 36 in loss

Jeff Birchfield • Updated Mar 14, 2019 at 8:54 PM

MURFREESBORO — Kaleb Meredith took on an even bigger role for University High with the loss of floor general Marshall Fleenor in Thursday's TSSAA Class A state quarterfinals at Middle Tennessee State University.

The sensational sophomore scored 36 points in the Bucs' 68-49 loss to McKenzie. He was 12-of-23 from the field, including 5-of-10 from 3-point range. He also hit 7-of-8 free throws. However, with point guard Fleenor leaving the game after the first quarter with an ankle injury, the Bucs struggled as a whole, hitting just 17-of-64 shots for 26.6 percent.

University High ended its season at 29-6, while McKenzie improved to 29-3.

"When I saw he went out, I knew we were short one of our best ball handlers, one of our best rebounders, one of our best scorers," Meredith said. "I knew I had to step it up and I knew my teammates had to step it up, too. I felt like we tried and we played with them a long time. Credit them, their big guy shot it inside and their point guard is really talented."

McKenzie's towering post Ben Austin was the big guy which Meredith alluded to, and he proved to every bit the tough matchup expected.

The 6-foot-8 Austin, who plans to attend Union (Tenn.) University, finished with 17 points, 18 rebounds and eight blocked shots. He was one of five McKenzie players in double figures. Nathan Whitsell ended with 14 points, followed by Lazarick Hill with 13 points, point guard Lucas King with 12 and Micah Austin with 10.

"The guys stayed with our game plan on the offensive end and were very unselfish when you look at the boxscore," McKenzie coach John Wilkins said. "Our big guys did a good job protecting the rim. Nate does a good job anticipating and Ben is so long. I have a photo of our walk-through yesterday and Ben's standing there on the floor with his hand halfway through the net."

With Austin setting the defensive tone early, the Rebels jumped out to an early 12-2 lead and never trailed. Still, University High kept it close. The Bucs were down 18-10 at the half and trailed by six points halfway through the second quarter. It was 31-21 at the half before the Rebels pulled away later in the second half.

University High coach Justin Penley liked what he saw with McKenzie.

"They have a lot of the pieces you look for if you were putting together a team," Penley said. "You start with a dynamic point guard and a dominant post. Then you have a wing or two, who can either get to the rim or step back and knock down a three. They have a lot of good pieces, an excellent team whose coach puts them in a position to be successful."

FLEENOR'S ABSENCE

The loss of Fleenor on a play at the end of the first quarter was difficult to overcome. Penley explained the 5-foot-10 junior was much more than the Bucs' second leading scorer, but equally important in other aspects of the game.

"Marshall does a lot for us. It starts with his ball handling and he's an explosive, quick player offensively who takes care of the ball well," Penley said. "He's such a great on-ball defender and you lose that dynamic too. You have the opportunity to adjust, but we didn't get it done tonight."

SENIOR CLASS

It was the last game for the senior class of Charlie Vargo, who ended with five points and five rebounds, Colin Daniel and Jake Hubbard. The trio, known for their gritty play, led University High to 48 wins over the last two seasons.

"They're great young people and they gave their best effort day in and day out," Penley said. "Each of them had their moments where they led our team. That's what's special about them. That senior class has played so much, not just during the four seasons they've been here, but in summer leagues and the work they did in the offseason.

"We're going to miss them for sure. I hope when they look back and assess their time at University School, they had a good time playing in our program and see how they grew as players and young men."

SEASON TO REMEMBER

As a whole, it was University High's best season in recent memory and the first state tournament appearance since 2008. The Bucs swept Watauga Valley Conference, District 1-A and Region 1-A championships before winning their sectional game against Harriman.

"It was a special season for us," Penley said. "I'm so proud of these guys, the work they put in the offseason to give themselves a chance to be special this season. We made a ton of plays and on any night, it could be a number of players who could lead us in scoring.

"What people sometimes don't pay attention to or what doesn't show up in the box score is how each player played their role on a given night. We had some kids come off the bench and be productive for us. Tonight, we weren't efficient enough on offense. One game doesn't define the season. Of course, we would have liked to have gone further, but we enjoyed the season and I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish this year."

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