Collapse leaves ’Toppers wondering ‘what if’

Douglas Fritz • Mar 17, 2012 at 9:57 PM

MURFREESBORO — Science Hill has some mental work to do over the next couple weeks.

The Hilltoppers will have to play the mind game, trying to remember a sparkling 2011-12 basketball season for something other than The Collapse.

Leading by 19 points in the third quarter against Memphis East in the Class AAA state semifinals Friday, the Hilltoppers saw the advantage evaporate in the blink of an eye. It was a shocking downturn because in building the lead the Hilltoppers pretty much did whatever they wanted on offense.

They scored 55 points in the first 19 minutes of the game. They were on a pace to finish with 92 points and roll into a state championship showdown against Memphis Central.

Making things even worse, Memphis East went on to beat Central 71-61 for the state title Saturday. There’s no guarantee Science Hill would have beaten Central, but it has to be difficult not to believe this was one that got away.

One of the odd parts of The Collapse was Science Hill’s scoring drought didn’t last extremely long. The Hilltoppers had only one bucket in five minutes, but at least it was a trey.

Three points in five minutes really isn’t enough of a drought to lose a 19-point lead. But Science Hill lost all but one point of its advantage as the Mustangs rang up 21 points.

Yes, the 21 points was the story. If East had scored 21 points every 4:42, it would have finished with approximately 142 points for the game.

Making things even harder to digest for Hilltoppers’ coach Ken Cutlip and his players was the way they completely recovered from the blitz — only to lose a second lead.

At the start of the fourth quarter, Science Hill quickly built an eight-point lead. However, in the state tournament, leads are sometimes only as good as your last bucket. And this one vanished as well.

Despite basically having five ballhandlers on the court at all times, turnovers were a key part of Science Hill’s state tournament demise. After losing possession 19 times in the quarterfinal win over Wilson Central, the Hilltoppers had just six turnovers in the first half against East.

However, while the Mustangs gave it up 15 times in the first half, they had only three in the second half while Science Hill totaled 10 turnovers.

“Late in the game we made some bad decisions, and we turned the ball over trying to force things that weren’t there,” said Cutlip.

Science Hill probably made enough shots to win this type of game. Teams can’t make all of their shots, and while some of the open looks didn’t go down in the second half, 12 of 26 shooting from 3-point land is 46 percent and way above average.

To pinpoint the loss on shooting would mean Science Hill needed to do even better from trey country, something like 16 of 26 for 62 percent to make up the 10-point difference. That would be an extremely tall order for any team as long as the defense is giving some kind of resistance.

Size was probably the biggest factor. The Mustangs simply elevated over the smallish Hilltoppers — especially 6-7 standout Nick King — and used the direct line of sight to shoot 72 percent in the first half, and 60 percent for the game.

Science Hill was a matchup nightmare for just about any team this year. The ‘Toppers constantly had tons of quickness on the court, no matter the lineup. And they consistently beat the Mustangs off the dribble.

Yes, they were quicker than a Memphis team — a throwback to Science Hill’s state championship days of the 1990s.

But it was kind of a Catch 22 for the Hilltoppers. They needed a post anchor who could play with his back to the basket on offense, and defend the middle on defense. But with that type of player on the court, it would have been a little easier for other teams to match up with them.

One thing Science Hill can ultimately be proud of is boasting some of the best teamwork this area has seen in decades.

“We had a team,” said Cutlip, emphasizing the word team. “It was not an individual, not one guy. It was a rare thing to have.

“We didn’t have a superstar or a Division I signee, but we had an opportunity to be in the state championship game.”

With Science Hill the only ranked team standing in the state semifinals, this was an opportunity missed. Things may be exponentially tougher next season.

Science Hill graduates a couple of key players from this 35-3 team, but there’s enough talent returning to make the Hilltoppers a state tournament threat in 2013.

If the team-first approach continues and the ball sharing is maintained at a high level, a fourth gold ball on The Hill is not out of the question.

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