MURFREESBORO — It will go down as one of the most memorable finishes in Science Hill basketball history.
And the road to success was paved partly by an unlikely hero named Marc Aples.
Trailing by seven points with 1:25 left in the game, the Hilltoppers were pure gold for the final 84 seconds and stunned Wilson Central with 12 consecutive points to somehow earn a 51-46 win in the Class AAA state quarterfinals Thursday afternoon at Murphy Center.
Aples delivered clean blocked shots on Wilson Central layup attempts with 49 seconds and 30 seconds left in the game.
Increasing their winning streak to 18 games, the Hilltoppers (35-2) earned a spot against Memphis East (21-9) in today’s semifinals at 4:15 p.m. East defeated Murfreesboro Blackman in a 57-56 thriller.
Science Hill’s victory was its first in the state tournament since finishing runner-up in 2002. And it was the first state win for head coach Ken Cutlip, whose teams have averaged 30 wins per season over eight years.
When asked if it was a win he needed to get, Cutlip said with a laugh, “I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a game at Science Hill that I didn’t feel like I needed to win.
“But for us to get it in the fashion we did means so much because of the kids we have. There’s pressure on these kids, too, to live up to the legacy that has been put before them.”
With Science Hill having just one fourth-quarter comeback all season — and that came in November against Bradley Central — it looked as dreary as it could look as the clock ticked to 1:25 in the fourth quarter. The Hilltoppers, a team averaging 71 points per game, had scored just 39 and turned the ball over 19 times — including some really ugly passes in the fourth quarter.
“There was pressure,” said Science Hill guard Will Adams, who turned in a brilliant performance with 16 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals. “They have a good team. We just had to do the best we could.”
Adams ignited the shocking comeback by finding a crease in the defense — there weren’t many throughout the game — and battling to the rim for an old-fashioned three-point play with 1:24 left.
Wilson Central decided its 46-42 lead was good enough to hold the ball, but Reed Hayes knocked the ball loose and C.J. Good came up with the steal with 1:03 left. Good then found Hayes in transition for a layup to cut the deficit to two points.
The Wildcats then broke Science Hill’s press, and Jacob Williams was driving for a layup when Aples dialed his number and said, hello I’m here to block your shot.
“He just went up and I just tried to get it for the team,” said Aples. “I just kind of jumped around him and got a full block.”
Hayes got the rebound and raced up the court to find Good all alone on the wing. Good had been locked down in the second half by Wilson’s defense — getting only two shot attempts — but he took advantage of the wide-open look and ripped the net to shreds.
It was a no-doubter, said Adams.
“I knew it was going in,” he said.
Said Hayes, “I prayed it was going in.”
Leading 47-46, Aples was unable to keep Wilson standout Dee Oldham from getting a crease to the rim. Unfortunately for Oldham, Aples stayed close by and authored his second rejection.
“He got it clean,” said Oldham, displaying maturity and sportsmanship with his comments. “It was just good defense. He’s a good defensive player.”
Aples managed to also get the rebound and got the ball to Adams, who found Calvin Songster on the block for a layup and a 49-46 lead.
“It feels amazing to make those plays and help my team win,” said Aples.
Williams got a clean look from 3-point land with 11 seconds left, but the shot was a bit long and Good secured the rebound. Good then made two free throws with nine seconds left to end the suspense.
Cutlip said the comeback was partly because of things going Science Hill’s way.
“I didn’t feel we were getting many breaks up to that point,” he said. “I knew we had to make plays to get back in it, and at the end we started getting the breaks.”
Science Hill trailed throughout the second half, including 33-27 in the third quarter before fighting back quickly with a 6-0 run. Things started to unravel midway through the fourth with a 9-2 run by Wilson Central.
Good finished with 13 points for the Hilltoppers, who also got eight points, four rebounds and two blocked shots from Hayes. The performance of Hayes was critical because he got loose for much-needed points in the paint in the second half.
“I was just flashing elbow to elbow and when I got free there was no one in my face, so I scored,” said Hayes.
Science Hill’s players did face some doubt in the fourth quarter.
“You always look at the clock and make sure you have time to come back,” said Hayes. “We had no choice but to doubt a little. But when C.J. hit that three and we got a defensive stop, I knew we would get the win.”
It was a tough send-off for Oldham and Williams, who combined for 33 of their team’s 46 points. Williams had 19 points and seven rebounds while Oldham totaled 14 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals. Oldham said he didn’t know how Wilson lost.
“Words can’t explain it,” he said.
Science Hill will likely have to play better to beat Memphis East.
“What a basketball team,” said Cutlip of the Mustangs. “We’ve got to do a better job of handling the basketball.”
East is led by 6-7 junior Nick King, who had 22 points, eight rebounds and three steals against Blackman.