Science Hill coach George Pitts wanted to beat Oak Hill Academy on December 5, 1994 in Freedom Hall for recruiting his point guard, Rob Williams, who was excited about beating Science Hill because the fans he’d played so hard for three seasons were suddenly booing him because of a career decision he’d made to better himself.
Oak Hill at Science Hill - Monday, 7 p.m.
Science Hill 6-foot-2 junior forward Jovann Johnson and 5-foot-11 senior guard Odarius Williams wanted to beat Oak Hill, in part, because some of the Warriors in a contingent that included Ron Mercer had been less than respectful when they visited Johnson City with Williams perhaps a few weeks before the game.
Mercer was motivated for Science Hill because the Nashville Goodpasture Christian team he’d played for the previous season had lost to Science Hill, 71-64, in the first round of the Arby’s Classic.
Science Hill junior point guard Nathaniel Bailey wanted to rise to the occasion against Rob Williams, who went from being a buddy to a measuring stick that night.
It was a perfect storm for arguably the most exciting atmosphere ever for a high school basketball game in Northeast Tennessee — and defending-state champion Science Hill parlayed the athleticism of players such as Johnson, Bailey, Odarius Williams and Brad Fields and the energy of a jam-packed Freedom Hall into an 82-72 upset of No. 1-ranked Oak Hill.
“When Rob went to Oak Hill, well, that hacked me off,” Pitts said. “So I called (Oak Hill coach) Steve Smith up and asked if he’d be interested … and ‘We’ll pay you $2,500.’ I didn’t like it at all and I wanted them to come down there.”
Williams had a game-high five assists the previous season while leading Science Hill to a 79-62 state championship victory against Brandon Wharton-led Nashville Overton. And Williams’ older brother, Shane, had helped Pitts’ Hilltoppers to a state title in 1990 and runner-up finish the following year. So it was a blow to the pride of a program that had gone 169-18 in the previous five seasons when Rob moved to Mouth of Wilson, Va.
But Rob wanted to go to a Division I school without attending junior college — a detour which his older brother had to make, as did Damon Johnson, Jovann Johnson and Bailey. And after attending Oak Hill, Williams did play as a freshman at Western Kentucky, where he was a Hilltopper once again.
“I’m the only one that went Division I right out of high school,” Rob said. “I didn’t want to go to Oak Hill … but I didn’t want to go to junior college.”
Jovann Johnson could have attended Oak Hill his senior season. In fact, he says, Coach Smith was reminding him of that fact shortly before the game in Freedom Hall.
“I’ve never told anybody this, but they tried to get me to come to Oak Hill … for that next year, my senior year,” Johnson said. “I remember when we were doing warm-ups, their coach pulled me to the side … and he was like ‘Hey, remember what we discussed.’ And (shooting guard) Andy Harman was like ‘Jovann, get away from him,’ and he, like, pulled me away from their coach.”
Science Hill always came to play, but was especially focused that night. Oak Hill had eight Division I players: Ricardo Crumble (6-foot-8, Cleveland State University); Venson Hamilton (6-foot-9, Nebraska), Mike McFarland (6-foot-3, Florida), Mercer (6-foot-7, Kentucky), Sammy Smith (6-foot-1, Hawaii), Darius Stinson (6-foot-3, North Carolina A&T), Melvin Whitaker (6-foot-10, Virginia/Mount St. Mary’s) and Williams (5-foot-11, Western Kentucky).
One day not long before the matchup in Freedom Hall, Williams brought Smith and Mercer, and perhaps Whitaker and/or Hamilton to Johnson City, and they saw some of the Hilltoppers playing pickup at Carver Rec.
“Those guys were talking all this crap about how they’s gonna beat us and it wasn’t even gonna be no game and they don’t know why that game was scheduled for them,” Johnson said. “They were being really disrespectful … and I think we were maybe in the top 10 in the nation that year. I think it was the two big guys and then maybe Ron Mercer. I can remember the two big guys, and they were talking a bunch of junk. And Rob was like ‘Y’all don’t need to be talking. These guys are good.’”
Odarius Williams took exception, too: “They were like ‘We’re gonna be playing against those little guys?’ And we’d heard we couldn’t win without Rob.”
Williams tried to get his new teammates’ attention.
“I told Whitaker and them ‘You’ve got to take them seriously,’ and they were like ‘They’re all little,’” Rob said. “But that same month we went to Vegas and they played like NBA players. … I think that atmosphere overwhelmed them.”
Pitts said the crowd of 7,000 was sold out in advance. A gate of approximately $40,000 was taken in, and an 18- or 20-seat passenger van was the ultimate spoils of the victor.
Odarius, who had team-highs in rebounds (11) and assists (six), said the crowd was “like the sixth man on the court.” And he ignited it when he left his man and came down the lane to swat the shot of a player a foot taller than him so hard that people still talk about the line-drive rejection into the wall.
"I remember O.D. blocked one of their big guys’ shots," Johnson said. "O, he really didn’t score a lot. He wasn’t gonna give us 20 or 25 points. But his defense led to other people scoring.
"His priority was defense. He would go out there and try to break records for steals. I remember at the state tournament, he was like, ‘Man, I’m gonna go out and set the state tournament record for steals.’"
Indeed, Odarius had seven steals in the state championship victory against Overton. It matched an unofficial team record that Rob Williams had set two games earlier in a hard-fought quarterfinals victory against Cary Daniels' Bearden.
Rob felt like a few of his personal fouls were stolen when Oak Hill played in Freedom Hall. He got two early fouls and fouled out late in the game.
“You can’t discredit it (Science Hill’s performance), but it was just the way the charges went,” Williams said. “There were probably 8-10 charges. … The worst was when Jovann ran over about three people and they called an and-one.”
It would've been easy to get caught up in the explosiveness of Johnson. On a court crowded with talent, him and Mercer seemed to be in another stratosphere. Johnson finished with 28 points. Mercer had 38 points and 14 rebounds.
“Mercer did everything thing he could, but he couldn’t win the game by himself,” Johnson said. “Rob had a pretty good game, but I don’t think anybody else really showed up. Their big guys should’ve been dominant.
“I was 6-1 or 6-2, maybe, and playing the post. If I was 6-9 or 6-10 playing a guy my size — they probably went into the game thinking I wasn’t gonna play the way I did. I don’t know if they’d ever heard of me before. They played a good game and we played a great game.”
Pitts is not easily impressed, but clearly is while talking about Science Hill’s performance that night, particularly Johnson’s.
“They didn’t know whether to take Jovann’s shot fakes or not,” Pitts said with chuckling admiration. “And those guys were all around 6-9. … Jovann had a great game, but it was definitely a team effort. I think he scored 28 and we scored 82. …
“That game wasn’t a fluke. We ended up beating them by 10. The way we played made it difficult — pushing it and running and they played a lot of zone. And we were able to get the ball inside to Jovann.”
Odarius believed Science Hill would win. Apparently every Hilltopper did.
“Coach Pitts is a great coach,” Odarius said. “He’s turned a bunch of programs around.”
Said Johnson, “Coach Pitts made us believe we could beat anybody.”
Odarius said it was odd keeping the eye of the tiger while hearing his good friend, Rob, being showered in jeers from the crowd.
“I hated for him to get booed, but we still had a job to do,” Odarius said. “And either me or Nookie (Bailey) — or Gabe Goulds — was gonna have to guard him.”
Goulds wasn’t around long. He lost teeth and cracked a facial bone in the first quarter after diving for a ball and having Mercer fall on him.
Science Hill’s players, at least some of them, didn’t take Rob’s transfer personally.
“We all understood the decision Rob made was for his future,” Johnson said, “I’m not saying he wouldn’t have had that opportunity. He was getting recruited at Science Hill. But I don’t think he would’ve had that opportunity for his grades and stuff like that.”
Odarius: “I was proud of Rob for going up there and getting into (Western Kentucky). I was happy he got in Oak Hill. If I could’ve got in I would’ve went. I guess Odarius would’ve been getting booed, too.”
Odarius even conceded that Rob might’ve had a point about the whistles, although he was far from convinced it decided the outcome.
“In some points of the game we probably had a little help,” Odarius said. “Rob got the worst of it. They were calling charges on him … and nitpicking. But they couldn’t match up with us.
“I knew it was a done deal when Rob fouled out — probably with a minute and a half or two minutes left — because they didn’t have another point guard. Mercer was a scorer, but he wasn’t a point guard.”
Rob doubts that his own father, Tony, even wanted to see Oak Hill win.
“I mean he wanted me to have a good game,” Rob said, “but he probably was for Science Hill.”
The Hilltoppers, who went on to their second straight state title, had a balanced attack. Brad Fields, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, had 15 points and nine rebounds. Bailey, who eventually started for New Orleans after getting offers from Bill Foster-coached Virginia Tech and Rick Barnes at Texas, had 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
“Nookie — his mindset was always ‘Bust somebody’s a--.’ That was his mindset,” Johnson said. “I don’t care if it was Sullivan Central or Oak Hill, his mindset was ‘You go out there and bust somebody’s a--.’”
The bright lights brought out Bailey’s best. He scored 30 in a victory against Jermaine O’Neal’s Eau Claire (S.C.) that season at The Omni in Atlanta, and he'd driven coast to coast and dished to Johnson for a game-winning layup at the buzzer against B.J. McKie's Irmo (S.C.) in the Arby's Classic championship game the previous season.
And Freedom Hall's lights were never brighter than when they shined on the Oak Hill-Science Hill tilt.
Shane Williams and Damon Johnson, who had come up shortly before the game after practice when they played for Kevin O’Neill at Tennessee, were even awed by the environment. They had to talk their way into the game. Many believed part of the reason they were there was to recruit Mercer for Tennessee, but they wanted to see the heavyweight bout.
“That atmosphere was unbelievable,” Damon said. “And that was the night when I realized that Jovann was special — seeing what he was doing against all those big guys.”
Jovann, who started briefly at Massachusetts before transferring to Lee University, loved the fast pace against Oak Hill, and remembers both coaches wisely watching an end-to-end game unfold for much of the second half without disrupting the flow with many timeouts.
“That game reminded me of pickup games down at the Rec,” Jovann said. “That’s what that game felt like, except we were playing in front of a big crowd. It was a packed house. I remember a lot of people even standing around like they didn’t have seats. They were standing around in the (corridors). It was thousands and thousands of people.
“Irmo (S.C.) was a good game (in the 1993 Arby’s title game), but that Oak Hill game, the atmosphere was bananas. I can’t even explain it. Before, with some games, you’d get nervous, or be praying together to go out here and have a good game. We used to laugh and joke a lot. That game, nobody was laughing and joking before the game. It was serious. Again, we felt like nobody was giving us a chance to win that game but ourselves.”
Despite being the underdog, Science Hill was ranked No. 11 in the country by USA Today at the time of the game. The Hilltoppers ended the season 37-3 and ranked No. 7 in USA Today. Oak Hill (31-3) finished No. 6 in the same poll.
“We probably could’ve sold another 1,000 tickets,” Pitts said. “What an atmosphere. I mean I’ve never been in another atmosphere like that in my coaching career. There were 7,000 there, and the vast, vast, vast majority were pulling for us. I’m sure there were some there just to watch good basketball, and some locals were there who would have liked to see us get beat just because we’d beaten them so badly at some point.”
Science Hill’s losses that season came to St. Patrick’s (Elizabeth, N.J.) which had Shaheen Holloway, and against Tim Thomas-led Paterson Catholic (N.J.) and Augusta Westside in the Arby’s Classic title game. Westside, which held on to win 76-73, had guards Ricky Moore (Connecticut) and William Avery (Duke).
“Those Science Hill kids, when they got on the court, they were gonna play hard and they were tough,” Pitts said. “And when you go against a bunch of Division I players, the mindset is: I’m gonna show them my game tonight. … There’re still people that come up to me when they see me and talk about that Oak Hill game. It was a great night for the Hilltoppers.”