The third time was indeed the charm for Science Hill’s senior-laden basketball team. After two straight losses in the Sectionals, the Hilltoppers broke through with a 56-38 defeat of Oak Ridge Monday night at the Topper Palace. Josh Odem scored 25 points and fellow senior Chris Smith scored 10 of his 15 in the fourth quarter, helping the ’Toppers outscore Oak Ridge 22-6 in the final eight minutes.
It was the 19th straight victory for Science Hill (31-4), which advances to next week’s state tournament in Murfreesboro for the first time since finishing runner-up to Memphis-White Station in 2002.
The Hilltoppers, who have eight seniors in their rotation, lost a Sectional at Oak Ridge last year after losing at home by three points to eventual state champion Maryville in 2007.
“It was the third try and it feels good to go to the state,” Odem said. “We’ve got a lot of seniors. We all grew up together, we’ve always been playing together and it feels good to get to keep on playing.”
The Hilltoppers’ future was in doubt until it turned up the defensive pressure in the fourth quarter. Issac Kinley forced three turnovers to ignite Science Hill’s transition game early in the fourth quarter, which helped the ’Toppers outscore the Wildcats 21-4 during the first 6:17 of the final quarter.
Kinley started the quarter with a steal and fast-break assist to Odem. Then after Oak Ridge missed a layup, Zach Jordan kicked out to Chris Smith for a 3-pointer that put Science Hill up 39-32 with 6:35 left.
“We miss a layup, they go down and hit a three and we just couldn’t stop the momentum after that,” said Oak Ridge coach Ricky Norris, whose team finished the season 23-12. “I just thought that their energy to sustain the momentum late was the difference. Once that momentum got going, we had nothing for them. They played really well in the fourth quarter.”
Science Hill forced 23 turnovers while committing 12. Chris Smith and Kinley each had three steals.
Drawing four charges in the first 14 minutes also helped the Hilltoppers offset an uptight beginning on the offensive end.
“Really, for about 2 1/2 quarters, I thought we looked like a deer in the headlights,” Science Hill coach Ken Cutlip said. “We were extremely tight. We had some kids miss bunnies. I told them at halftime, I thought we were just throwing the ball and waiting for somebody else to make a play.
“When we turned up the defensive pressure, that got us going offensively. To be able to hold somebody the quality of Oak Ridge to 38 points, that just speaks volumes about our kids’ commitment to that end of the court.”
Odem’s transition basket gave Science Hill its first double-digit lead with 3:05 left. Among his 11 field goals were a reverse lay-in via a baseline drive, a 3-pointer, a 12-foot baseline turnaround and a whirling drive in transition.
“Josh Odem is a tremendous player,” Norris said. “He was a matchup nightmare, as he has been for everybody up here. It was no different for us.”
Larry Smith, Zach Jordan and Odem led Science Hill with four rebounds apiece. Oak Ridge outreobunded Science Hill 25-24.
Chris Smith, Kinley and R.J. Jackson each had three assists. Jackson, a point guard, got one of his field goals on a put-back. The other came in transition during Science Hill’s run early in the fourth quarter shortly before he left to a standing ovation.
“If there’s one word to describe R.J., it’s relentless,” Cutlip said. “When he steps on the floor, he brings a lot of energy. R.J. and Issac create so much havoc defensively.
“I told Issac there in the fourth quarter, ‘This is your time. Defensively, you’ve got to make plays for us.’ And he did.”
James Michael led Oak Ridge with 11 points. He was the Wildcats’ only scorer in double figures.
There was a sense of joy for the Hilltoppers, but a palpable sense of relief as well in the gym where so many banners hang.
“This is a proud program with a lot of tradition,” Cutlip said. “So it is a relief, but it’s more of a proud moment for me to see these kids be able to do it. The pressure of the expectations are on the coach, but they’re also on the kids.
“I think there was a feeling that we’re all in it together to reach those expectations, and this is just a great feeling.”
Chris Smith made 5 of 6 free throws in the final two minutes to help punch his ticket to Murfreesboro. He’s been to four state tournaments in tennis, but this feeling was different.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”
Cutlip seemed to sum it up to his satisfaction.
“These kids have made tremendous sacrifices for me over the last four years, especially this year,” he said. “I have never coached a team that I truly felt deserved to go to a state tournament more than this one.”