MURFREESBORO — As exhilarating as Science Hill’s comeback was Thursday, the collapse in Friday’s Class AAA state semifinals was heart crushing.
The Hilltoppers led by 19 points midway through the third quarter, but lost all but one point of that lead before the period ended. Then after building an eight-point lead with five minutes left in the game, Science Hill wound up on the short end of an 81-71 decision against Memphis East at Murphy Center.
It was a streak ender (18 games) and a season-ender for the Hilltoppers, who finished at 35-3. They had reached the semifinal game with a stirring come-from-behind win over Wilson Central.
Memphis East (22-9) will play Memphis Central (20-9) for the state championship today at 5 p.m. (EDT).
Knocking down 12 3-pointers, including a blistering 7-of-9 performance from C.J. Good, was not enough to carry the Hilltoppers to a win. It did allow them to build hope with a 55-36 lead with five minutes left in the third quarter.
That lead was significant because of its size, but also because the Hilltoppers opened the period with a 10-4 run against a team took so long with halftime adjustments that it didn’t return to the court until the buzzer sounded for the ball to be put in play to start the third quarter.
Down by 19 points, Memphis East coach Samuel Bachelor ditched strategy altogether.
“I told them in the timeout, ‘Guys, we’ve gotten to where Xs and Os are out the window,” said Bachelor. “If you want it, you just have to take it.”
And that’s exactly what standout Nick King did. The fluid 6-7 junior swingman finished with 31 points, 10 rebounds and three steals.
Bachelor did instruct his players to pick up fullcourt — and even though they didn’t take the ball from Science Hill, things changed dramatically.
“I think it made them speed up and got them out of rhythm,” said Bachelor.
Cutlip said the fullcourt press wasn’t a bother to the Hilltoppers.
“When we got in the halfcourt, we mishandled the ball and didn’t execute as well,” said Cutlip. “We missed shots we made in the first half even though we got the same looks.”
East got an innocent pair of free throws from Keelon Lawson to make it 55-38, but it was the start of a bonfire. The Mustangs completed an 11-0 run before Zach Howard ripped a trey ball from the corner to push it back to 58-47.
However, East closed the period with a 10-0 spurt to trail by one entering the fourth quarter. The 21-3 blitz was completed in 4:42 and could have demoralized Science Hill, but the Hilltoppers regrouped and opened the fourth quarter with a 9-2 run to take a 67-59 lead.
Science Hill missed a box out on East’s next possession, and Earvin Morris turned it into a stick-back. Morris scored again on a drive down the baseline before Good answered with a basket to make it 69-63.
Then the Hilltoppers started putting the Mustangs on the free throw line. East, which was a very impressive 26 of 30 from the charity stripe for the game, made six straight to tie the game.
Will Adams briefly put Science Hill back ahead at 70-69 with a free throw, but Jalen Selmon’s bucket with 2:08 left gave East its first lead since early in the first quarter.
Morris scored again to make it 73-70 before Adams again made one of two free throws.
The Hilltoppers were forced to foul down the stretch, and rushed things on the offensive end. When it was said and done, it was a 10-point margin.
East made shots throughout the game. It was 25 of 42 for 60 percent from the field, including 5 of 12 from 3-point land.
Science Hill picked its poison, choosing to stay close to King, which opened some area for 3-pointers.
“They were 1 of 10 yesterday (on treys),” said Cutlip. “If they went 1 of 10 today, we’re playing in the championship game.
“That was the game plan, to be honest. You had to honor King. He probably would have had 50 if we didn’t do what we did.”
At halftime, it looked like Science Hill was on its way to the finals.
“We held the ball extremely well in the first half,” said Cutlip. “We all found the open man, and we made shots.”
Good and Howard both had monster performances for the Hilltoppers. Good finished with 25 points while Howard hit four treys to totaled 22 points and four assists.
Reed Hayes also came up big, totaling 12 points and three steals. Will Adams had 10 points and three assists, but struggled with nine turnovers.
East got 15 points and nine rebounds from Morris. He scored 10 of his points in the final 5:17 of the game.
Lawson totaled 12 points and seven rebounds while Mathew Butler finished with 13 points.
One of the keys to the East comeback was Selmon, a reserve who scored 10 points in eight second-half minutes.
“He’s a defensive stopper and he’s a game-changer,” said Bachelor.
Cutlip said he was proud of his team’s effort in Murfreesboro. Third-ranked Science Hill was the last top 10 team standing.
“This team deserves the ranking it had all year,” said Cutlip. “They represented themselves well in an outstanding manner. But we are disappointed with how it finished.”
Howard said the Hilltoppers played confident and played together, but could have done more.
“I think we could have given better effort in the second half,” said Howard. “We knew rebounding would be a key, but we didn’t do a good job in the second half.”
The Hilltoppers were outrebounded 20-13 in the second half.