From a state-tournament perspective, it has been like night and day between the 1990s and the first decade of the new century for Science Hill.
After over 10 years of being a fixture at the Class AAA event, the Hilltoppers were bounced from the first round of the district in 2001. They responded by making it to the state title game in 2002, but since then Murfreesboro hasn’t seen the Hilltoppers.
Part of the reason for that drought has been Oak Ridge, which has twice denied Science Hill in sectional contests. However, tonight the Hilltoppers will be at home as the Wildcats come calling for a sectional game at 7 o’clock inside what should be a packed ’Topper Palace.
The winner earns a spot in next week’s state quarterfinals in Murfreesboro while the loser’s season comes to a close.
Can Science Hill end its six-year state tournament absence?
“These kids are extremely focused,” said Hilltoppers’ head coach Ken Cutlip, whose team is 30-4 on the season and coming off District 1-AAA and Region 1-AAA titles. “They come across to me as a team that has some unfinished business.
“Obviously there is pressure on this group. They want to break through. And I believe deep in my heart this group deserves to go. They’ve done the right things to put themselves in a position to have this opportunity. I think we will come out and play a great game.”
It’s unlikely the Hilltoppers will take Oak Ridge lightly, despite the Wildcats’ record of 23-12 and their 50-point loss (93-43) to Knox Bearden in the Region 2-AAA final.
“No. 1, our kids know how good Bearden is,” said Cutlip. “No. 2, we’re playing a team that beat us in this game last year, and they return five players. We ended up getting beat 55-36.
“These kids have been in this situation the last couple of years. And another thing that was brought up was two years ago when we hosted Maryville, which had lost by 30 points in the regional final. Maryville beat us and wound up winning the state. So there’s no correlation for what you do in the region championship to how you perform in a substate game. It’s an entirely different tournament.”
Oak Ridge is led by Tyler Clark, who moved to point guard in mid-January and has made a big difference for the team. The 6-2 senior totaled 24 points in the region semifinal win over Maryville, and had 16 in the quarterfinal win over Lenoir City.
Other key players include 6-2 post Jakari McClanahan, 6-1 wing Derrick Smith, and guard Demarcus Rogers.
The Wildcats made 11 3-pointers in one of their district tournament games.
“We have to contest the 3-point shots, and do a great job on the boards,” said Cutlip. “And we have to handle their pressure.”
Being at home should provide Science Hill with an advantage.
“I think it’s a huge advantage just because you are comfortable,” said Cutlip. “You don’t have to get on the road and travel. It’s more of a normal routine. The bottom line is you have to come out and play an outstanding game.”
Science Hill is led by 6-6 guard Josh Odem, who totaled 22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and seven steals in the Region 1-AAA final against Morristown East.