The running joke with the Tampa Prep basketball team is that winning games this season has been a track meet to 50 points — whichever team gets there first is victorious. While the Terrapins first believed that meant filling the net, they've learned that it has more to do with stopping the other team from doing exactly that. And longtime Tampa Prep coach Joe Fenlon constantly reminds his team of that fact. As the Terrapins prepared for their Class 2A region final against Community School of Naples with a recent practice, Fenlon's voice rang out during a drill in which the Terps take charges and chase down loose balls.
"On Saturday, the game will be won on defense," Fenlon yelled.
Since Nov. 8, he has drilled that message into his players' heads. He constantly tells them he doesn't need five players scoring 15 points. He needs all five playing solid defense. And over the past month, the team has bought into that. Taking a charge is a badge of honor, and six players in the Terps' nine-man rotation, including all five starters, average at least 1.6 steals.
"We all buy into it," said junior forward Jay Bowie, a transfer from Middleton who averages 14.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and a team-high 2.3 steals. "A lot of what we do comes out of transition. We play with a whole lot of energy and try to wear our opponents down."
Fenlon, in his 26th year at Tampa Prep, says this is one of the quickest teams he has ever had, especially with the addition of Bowie, Wharton transfer Jordan Heath (son of USF men's basketball coach Stan Heath) and freshman Devontae Morgan, who all add to the Terps' transition game.
"Every game we've won the past month, we've won it because of our defense," Fenlon said. "Yeah, we were fortunate to score points, but a lot of our points were scored from our defense with transition baskets, a turnover or a deflection."
And that's how the Terps (25-4) will have to play against Community School (23-4), which Tampa Prep beat in the region final two years ago to get to its most recent final four.
"Defense was key in that game, too," said junior forward Jamal Cherry, the Terps' leading scorer who played in the game two years ago and often guards the opposition's best player. "In the third quarter, we shut them down and that helped us win the game. I think that experience will help us out."