Size matters little to the Pensacola High boys basketball team.
In their mind: The bigger they are, the harder they fail.
The Tigers added Gainesville to their list of defeated Goliaths, topping the Purple Hurricanes 61-54 in Tuesday’s Region 1-6A semifinal.
Now, Pensacola High is headed to the region finals for the first time since 2009.
“It means everything because I have a great group of kids, and they’ve worked hard all year,” said coach Terrence Harris, in his fifth year with the Tigers. “It’s for them. I’m glad to see that they have worked hard to get this point.”
The Tigers continued to work hard during Tuesday’s game, having to outwork a squad where all but eight of 12 players are taller than 6-foot-2.
It is a matchup PHS is accustomed to.
“It was great,” junior Traquan Knight said. “We’re always the smaller team. Teams are always going to be bigger than us. We just use our quickness.
“We like to run. We like to play defense. … That’s what we do. That’s our strength, so we stick to that. Size doesn’t really affect us. It’s really not important. We’ve been facing it all year, so we’ve gotten used to it.”
Pensacola High put its speed on display early, scoring fast and never giving up the lead.
After Gainesville won the opening tip, Rudy Bibb-Boyd walked the ball past midcourt before Pensacola High’s Marquise Cole swiped it for a quick layup — two of his team-high 18 points and five steals — on the fast break. It was the first of 12 steals for the Tigers.
“We know when they’re bigger they’re not going to want to get down and guard us because we’re smaller,” PHS senior guard Mitchellin Maxwell said. “So we made it hard on their knees to guard us, to squat down and try to hold up.”
The Tigers host Ed White in the Region 1-6A title game at 7 p.m. Saturday.
A win would put PHS in the final four for the first time since 2009. It would be Harris’ first appearance since taking Washington to the state semifinals in 2008.
The Tigers flirted with a double-digit lead for most of the night, but the Hurricanes always managed to creep back.
After a goaltending call against PHS with 4:41 to go in the third quarter, Gainesville was down 37-35.
That was as close as the Hurricanes would get as PHS put together a sequence that ended with a corner 3-pointer from Cole as time expired to put the Tigers up 45-36 heading into the fourth.
During the final quarter, the Tigers continued to put their speed on display, running the fast break as often as possible.
With 2:13 to go in the game, Maxwell stripped Gainesville’s Mark McGraw and passed to Knight for an alley-oop dunk that extended PHS’ lead to 54-44 and brought the crowd to its feet.
By then, it was too little too late for the Hurricanes.
“Me and my teammate, Mitchellin Maxwell, we made eye contact,” Knight said. “Once he got the steal, he was about to throw me a chest pass but I told him ‘no,’ because I was waiting for the alley. I threw it in and the place went crazy. It felt great.”
Region 1-6A Semifinal
At Pensacola High
Pensacola High 61, Gainesville High 54
Gainesville…17 12 7 18–54
PHS…21 14 10 16–61
GAINESVILLE — Rudy Bibb-Boyd 3, Mark McGraw 14, Kevin Bolen 10, Armani Williams 6, Ike Smith 21
PHS (25-5) — Mitchellin Maxwell 11, Mitchell Maxwell 2, Corey Staten 3, Delano Witherspoon 2, Dacon Buchanan 8, Marquise Cole 18, Traquan Knight 13, Donte Hicks 4.
Stats: Knight 5 rebounds, Cole 5 steals.