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Hilltoppers slash Hurricanes to claim Region 1 title

Bill Lane • Mar 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Science Hill has accomplished three of its major goals this season. The Hilltoppers are Big 9 Conference, District 1-AAA and Region 1 champions for the first time in a decade..

Goal No. 4 could be achieved in Murfreesboro if they reach the Class AAA state tournament.

Ken Cutlip’s Hilltoppers (30-4) defeated Morristown East on Thursday night 70-53 for the region crown. It was their 18th consecutive victory.

Six-foot-five guard Josh Odem, who’s headed for UT-Chattanooga, put on a dazzling show for the Hilltoppers. He scored 22 points, dished out eight assists, grabbed eight rebounds and had seven steals.

“That probably was the best performance I’ve ever had by a player since I’ve been coaching,’’ Cutlip said. “Josh continues to get better. He scores, and he’s so willing to share the basketball. I think he’ll be a combo guard at Chattanooga, depending on the matchups.’’

Odem, who was selected the region’s MVP, has a soft shooting touch, uncanny moves and court awareness every coach covets. He averages 23 points per game.

Odem took in stride all the attention he was getting after the game.

“I looked for teammates and they looked for me,’’ he said. “We helped each other out. It feels good to be having another home advantage.’’

Science Hill will host Oak Ridge in a TSSAA sectional on Monday. Morristown East (25-8) must go to Bearden, a 93-43 winner over Oak Ridge in the Region 2 championship game.

Both Cutlip and Odem had praise for East’s gutsy effort.

“(The Hurricanes) are the hardest working team we’ve played all year,’’ Odem said. “We gave Austin Gardner too many open looks and you can’t do that against a good shooter.’’

Gardner, a 6-1 junior guard, tossed in 23 points without the benefit of a free throw. He hit five 3-point goals. In the tourney, he had scoring outputs of 25, 24 and 23. The deadly jump shooter averages 20 points and has been hitting 38 percent from the arc.

“We were aware that Gardner could shoot it,’’ Cutlip said. “We knew if he made one shot, two or three more would be coming. (East) went after every rebound and loose ball. They have unbelievable motion in their offense.’’

Science Hill’s last trip to the state tournament was in 2002. Cutlip, whose teams have been denied twice in the sectional by Oak Ridge, could be making his first Murfreesboro appearance.

“This group of kids has come together,’’ Cutlip said. “They deserve to get to state. We know we’ll have to go out and have our best game against Oak Ridge. Nothing is guaranteed.”

Other double-figure scorers for the Hilltoppers were Chris Smith (12), Zach Jordan (10) and Larry Smith (10).

The game’s turning point occurred during a one-minute span in the second quarter. East trailed 24-21. Three straight steals resulted in layups, enabling Science Hill to stretch its lead to nine points.

Mike Wright, the East coach, said this lapse proved costly. “We let the game get away with those three turnovers, but I was proud of the way we battled throughout.’’

Wright gave Odem high marks. “He’s a heckuva player. We knew we had to contain Odem but we let him get to the paint too much.’’

Having to face Bearden in Knoxville could be quite a task. “Bearden is ranked No. 1 for a reason but we just have to win one game,’’ Wright said. “If it were four out of five, I’d be a lot more concerned.’’

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