Science Hill got a mulligan in its ’Topper Palace, and hit a drive all the way to Murfreesboro.
After losing what was supposed to be the final game in the venerable gym against Knox West in the Class AAA sectional last season, a year of construction delays and hammering opponents gave coach Ken Cutlip’s Hilltoppers a chance to end the Palace’s career on a winning note when it hosted Maryville in the sectional Monday night.
And the Hilltoppers delivered with a 69-60 victory that was highlighted by the balanced attack that’s been this team’s trademark. Senior wing Zach Howard scored 10 of his 15 points in the second half and Reed Hayes scored 11 straight in the first half after Maryville opened the game on a 15-8 run.
Junior point guard Will Adams (10 points, six assists) made two free throws via a baseline drive to stop an 11-0 Maryville run and give the Hilltoppers a 48-45 lead at the end of the third quarter.
Junior guard C.J. Good scored six of his 11 points by making two of his three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, a period in which sophomore Tre’vonn Fields scored seven of his nine. And ailing senior Hunter LeVeau had 10 points, four rebounds and three assists.
Not many would’ve picked Science Hill to be Murfreesboro bound and 34-2 after offseason injuries to LeVeau (back) and Buddy Gosey (knee), and the transfers of Shannon Hale and Jaylen Allen.
“These kids just decided, ‘If we’re gonna be successful, we’ve got to find a way to do it as a group,’” said Cutlip, whose Hilltoppers will open state tournament play next week in Murfreesboro. “And it’s evident; we’ve got six kids almost averaging double figures. … I love these kids for their willingness to sacrifice for what’s best for the team.”
Although the players, particularly the seniors, were understandably disappointed, it turned out for the best that the new gym’s construction wasn’t completed this season.
“This program has been so successful for so long, and this gymnasium has so many great memories, for us not to win it last year — it was unsettling to me,” said Cutlip, still glistening from the surprise shower his players sprung on him when he entered the locker room some 30 minutes after cutting down the nets and doing a radio interview. “I have so much respect for what this program stands for, the people that’s been here, the kids that have played here. And for us not to win the last game in the Palace just did not seem right, and it bothered me.
“We had no idea we were gonna get a second chance. I was convinced that was the last game in the Palace, and it just bothered me. Obviously, somebody had a bigger picture in mind. I am proud of our kids for being able to close this gymnasium out in the way that it should be done.”
The closure’s opening was unsettling. Sophomore shooting guard John Garrett (12 points) scored eight points, including two 3-pointers, during the opening 15-8 run, and junior lead guard T.J. Kimble scored 11 of his 24 points in the second quarter on a variety of difficult drives, leaners and a double-clutch bank while all but wowing the capacity crowd.
“What a player,” Cutlip said. “He’s just really strong, physical, can make tough shots. He didn’t get a lot of wide-open looks. He just made shots and took them at us. Obviously, we didn’t have an answer, and we threw everybody … and if I could’ve got the kitchen sink we would’ve thrown it at him, too.
“Maryville really wasn’t fazed by the environment. … I thought our kids held their composure. … I felt pretty good where we were after we got, you know, through that onslaught at the beginning of the game.”
Hayes scored via back-cuts, a 3-pointer, a steal and transition layup and a 15-foot pull-up from the elbow during his first-half flurry. He scored 13 points while the 'Toppers turned a seven-point deficit into a five-point lead midway through the second quarter.
“I didn’t even know the score,” said Hayes, who might’ve generated the crowd’s loudest response with his quick-leaping, two-handed interception of a high-velocity attempt at a post entry from point-blank range early in the fourth quarter. “I just kept trying to run the plays right and do what coach was asking.”
Maryville coach Mark Eldridge said Science Hill’s variety of weapons forces opponents to “pick and choose your poison,” and Cutlip anticipated a chance to inject a heavy dose of Hayes.
“We felt like we were gonna have some mismatches with Reed coming in, and we had some sets and things we wanted to look at to get Reed the ball,” Cutlip said. “We just went through a stretch right there where we thought that was our best opportunity to score, and obviously he was able to finish around the basket.”
Hayes' first half included two interior baskets on set plays. The second one appeared to be designed during an ad-libbed timeout, as Cutlip called his players over to the bench in the backcourt during a momentary delay while two Science Hill subs entered before an inbounds pass. The executed result was a basket down low for Hayes that gave the ’Toppers a 26-21 lead with four minutes left in the first half.
LeVeau’s transition basket on one of Good’s seven assists built the advantage to 35-28 at the half.
Howard made two treys while Science Hill opened the third quarter on a 11-6 spurt, and the second one stretched the lead to 46-34 with 3:19 left in the period. But the game Rebels answered with an 11-0 run, which Adams stopped with two free throws with four seconds left in the quarter.
“I thought a huge play, to be honest with you, was at the end of the third when we were able to get Will to the foul line and he made two free throws,” Cutlip said. “That kind of stopped the bleeding right there for the moment. And then we were able to refocus there in the fourth quarter and execute some things and get some easy shots.”
Indeed, Adams’ free throws started a 9-0 run which Fields capped with a transition lay-in that made the score 55-45 with 5:50 left. Good’s second trey of the period made it 58-46 with 5:11 remaining.
Kimble’s pull-up that rattled out would’ve gotten Maryville within 60-52 with 3:45 left. Instead, Adams’ stick-back at the other end pushed the Hilltoppers’ cushion back to 12 points with 3:28 left, and the margin was double digits till Kimble's trey with five seconds remaining concluded the scoring.
“I didn’t think they’d go 16 of 23 from the floor in the first half, but … we knew we’d have to make shots to stay in it,” Eldridge said. “We made our own run to end the third and we felt good going in the fourth, and we came out and made back-to-back turnovers. And you can’t turn it over to Science Hill and let them make their bang-bang run.”
Some reserve Rebels appeared rattled late in the first quarter.
“I thought my subs didn’t handle the ball and then got beat back-cut a couple of times, and allowed Science Hill to get back in it at the end of one (quarter),” he said. “I thought that was a big couple of minutes that … trying to rest my starters, and my back-up guys didn’t do what they were supposed to do.”
LeVeau provided the Hilltoppers’ only bench scoring. His three-point play via a nifty, one-dribble scoop move gave Science Hill a 41-32 lead with 5:30 left in the third quarter. LeVeau also used the dribble to free himself for a reverse lay-in and a 15-foot bank shot in the second quarter.
LeVeau was already styling before the opening tip. He suggested Hilltoppers players get Mohawk haircuts for the game, and teammate Marc Aples’ father’s clippers were soon cropping camaraderie.
“Obviously, there were some doubters with what this group could do,” Cutlip said. “We had a lot of kids that were a part of that (sectional loss) last year, and were disappointed. The biggest thing is this team had no individual agendas. There was no complaints about what position they were playing in and where they were on the floor. We asked point guards to be post players. They played out of position all year and I didn’t get one complaint about, ‘Coach, this is where I’m at.’”
Bryan Landers added 11 points for Maryville, which ended the season with a 22-9 record.
Science Hill finished 28 of 46 from the field and made 7 of 11 from 3-point range. Good made 3 of 4 treys, and Howard was 3 of 5.
Fields was 4 of 5 from the field. Adams and LeVeau were each 4 of 6.
Hayes had six rebounds, four assists, three steals and made his lone 3-point attempt.
“We can all score and guard our man,” Howard said. “So I mean, it’s just an honor to play with everyone on our team, and I love every minute of it.”
And it was an honor sending the ’Topper Palace out on a high note – on a night, no less, when former Science Hill head coach George Pitts and long-time assistants Charlie Morgan and Randy Ferrell were in attendance.
“We had to come out here and win this game,” Howard said. “Redeem last year.”