“I think the sectional is a completely different animal than any game along the way, because so much is on the line,” said Science Hill head coach Ken Cutlip. “You get to this point and you’re literally on the brink of making the state tournament.”
Cutlip’s team is standing at the edge, playing host to Knox Powell in a Class AAA sectional basketball game at the Hilltoppers’ gym Monday night with tipoff set for 7 p.m.
In another Class AAA game, Dobyns-Bennett travels meet powerful Knox Bearden. In Class AA, Unicoi County hits the road to play perennial power Knox Fulton. And in Class A, upstart Sullivan North has a road date with Oakdale while North Greene is at home to take on Coalfield.
THE POWELL FILE
Powell started the season with four straight losses and six in its first eight games, but the Panthers are 19-5 since then and have won seven of their last eight contests.
Cutlip said the Panthers bring what most teams from Knoxville bring.
“I think they are a typical Knoxville team,” said Cutlip. “Any team that comes out of Knoxville has been battle tested. They have some good athletes, some decent size inside, and they are tough minded.”
Powell is led by point guard Josh Woods, who was the District 3-AAA tournament most valuable player.
“He’s extremely athletic, and he can do a lot of things,” said Cutlip. “He can put it on the floor and create his own shot.”
Desmond Billingsley is another good player while Caleb Tripp can be a difference maker. He had 29 points in the region semifinal win over Maryville.
“He’s a great 3-point shooter and a relentless rebounder,” said Cutlip.
THE HILLTOPPERS FILE
Science Hill enters the matchup with a record of 25-8, having won 12 of its last 13 games. The Hilltoppers are coming off their fourth straight region title, and their last state tournament appearance came in 2016. They have been to the state three times under Cutlip with the others coming in 2009 and 2012. This is their 11th sectional appearance in 14 seasons under Cutlip.
THE FIRST MEETING
Science Hill and Powell met way back on Nov. 18 with the Hilltoppers earning a 66-51 win.
Jerriah Love led the way for Science Hill with 14 points and six assists. Tate Wheeler had 14 points while Junior Danso added 10.
For Powell, Tripp totaled 18 points and Woods added 12.
THE BIG THING
Cutlip said the sectional often boils down to something that needs little analysis.
“I think one of the biggest keys is how well you shoot the basketball,” he said. “The years we’ve been able to shoot the ball well, we’ve been successful.”
Science Hill didn’t shoot it well in the Region 1-AAA final, but defeated Dobyns-Bennett 37-35 thanks in part to a spirited defensive effort.
Cutlip said Science Hill was “like a ship without a sail” early in the season.
“We were looking for leaders,” said Cutlip. “We had kids who wanted to be leaders, but didn’t quite know how to do it. But then we had some guys step up and take the leadership role.”
Dobyns-Bennett (29-7) at Knox Bearden (36-1)
The Bulldogs haven’t lost to an in-state opponent this season, with their lone setback a 58-55 decision in the Arby’s Classic against Columbus, Mississippi.
Bearden cruised through the Region 2-AAA tournament, winning by 29, 14 and 17 points against Karns, Oak Ridge and Powell, respectively.
The Indians had won 11 in a row before stumbling against Science Hill in the region final, losing by two points in a game in which they only managed to score 35.
Dobyns-Bennett is shooting for its first state tournament appearance since 2010. Bearden lost in the Class AAA state quarterfinals last season.
Unicoi County (22-12) at Knox Fulton (22-8)
The Blue Devils have been to this point many times in the past 13 years, but haven’t been able to close the deal for a trip to Murfreesboro.
Unicoi is 0-8 in its most recent trips to the sectional. The Blue Devils lost at Austin-East (2005, 2008), at Fulton (2007, 2009, 2010), at Carter (2014) and home games to Austin-East (2008) and Stone Memorial (2011).
Meanwhile, the Falcons have been to the state tournament 10 times in the last 14 seasons. And Fulton simply doesn’t lose in the sectional, winning in all 10 of their appearances dating back to 2003.
Since head coach Jody Wright took over the program, Fulton is 15-1 in the sectional contest. The Falcons won Class AA state titles in 2008, 2009 and 2016.
Unicoi County’s Trevor Hensley has 2,356 points in his career. He needs 11 points to break the school’s overall all-time scoring record, which is held on the girls’ side by Amy Engle.
Sullivan North (18-16) at Oakdale (27-6)
It’s going to be a tall order for the Raiders, as they make the long trip to face a team that scored 268 total points in three Region 2-A tournament wins.
Oakdale scored 100 against Lookout Valley, 78 against Rockwood, and 90 in the title game against Coalfield.
Of course matchups always play a role, but North scored just 47 and 44 in last two contests — the latter being a tough four-point loss to North Greene in the Region 1-A final.
Both teams are seeking their first state tournament berth.