With a little help from Tennessee High, that is.
The Lady Hilltoppers routed the Lady Cougars by a 60-33 margin, mathematically clinching their first Big 8 regular-season title during the tenure of coach Darrell Barnwell.
Science Hill’s boys survived a hard-fought 76-73 game against Central. Combined with Tennessee High’s upending of Dobyns-Bennett, it secured the Big 8 boys regular-season title for Ken Cutlip’s squad.
Barnwell expressed a hope that already cinching the title takes a little bit of pressure away from Friday’s regular-season finale against D-B, which also will be senior night.
As for Cutlip ...
“We’re extremely thrilled and thankful to win the league ... but Friday night is Dobyns-Bennett,” he said. “It’s an extremely important game for both cities. I don’t expect a letdown by either one of the teams.”
Cutlip’s Hilltoppers (23-6, 12-1) came perilously close to suffering their own road loss. Bolstered by senior night, Central played Science Hill tough for all 32 minutes.
Nathan Vannoy scored the first seven points of the fourth quarter, boosting the Cougars to a 61-52 advantage with less than seven minutes to go in the game. But Central missed five free throws during the final frame and Science Hill was able to hang around.
After the back end of a two-shot trip to the line by Gavin Duncan gave the ’Toppers a 72-71 lead, C.J. Good added four free throws in the final 30 seconds.
In a drought from 3-point range all game, Good scored all eight of his points in the fourth quarter, hitting all six free throws he attempted.
Zach Howard and Jaylen Allen scored 14 points apiece to lead Science Hill. Duncan added 11 points.
Vannoy’s 25 points led all scorers. Central (9-14, 4-10) got 12 points from Zane Kilby.
“Tonight, depth-wise, overall this was our best game,” Cougars coach Tony Vaughn said. “You can second-guess yourself all the time. We’re at the door. We’ve got to get through that door.”
The Lady Hilltoppers kicked down the door to the conference title in the second half. In the final 12:45 of the game, Central tallied only three field goals.
“I don’t think we could’ve dropped it in if we’d been right on top of the goal,” Lady Cougars coach Gary Surcey said.
Science Hill, meanwhile, had four girls score in double digits. Haley Hensley posted a team-high 14 points before fouling out. Enjelica Reid added 13 and Shy Copney and Breyonna Robinson had 10 apiece, with all 10 of Robinson’s coming in a 21-point fourth quarter by the Lady ’Toppers (21-5, 12-1).
“I told our kids in the locker room, I don’t think many people expected us to be here at the beginning of the year,” Barnwell said. “We’re so young and of the 10 kids that we play, five of them had never played varsity before this year.”
Kim Wood scored 12 points and Madi Phillippie 11 for the Lady Cougars, who trailed 28-18 at the break and were essentially out of contention for the entire second half. Jacqueline Kestner, who was averaging about 17 points a game for Central, was held to three.
“We didn’t come to play tonight,” Surcey said. “It just sort of snowballed.”
The Lady Cougars (17-9, 9-5) complete their conference schedule with the fourth seed in the district tournament locked up. Central’s boys and Volunteer are tied for sixth.
Science Hill has one more league game left. And, as history shows, it’s a doozy.