Cell phones existed, but they were expensive at the time. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web during the summer. O.J. Simpson had been accused of killing of his wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson, and Ronald Goldman. Bill Clinton was the President of the United States.
On Dec. 5 — a mild, 58-degree Monday — spectators packed Freedom Hall to watch a game for the ages when the Warriors of Oak Hill Academy from Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, met the Science Hill Hilltoppers. According to sources, there were more 6,000 tickets sold for the game.
It still remains as one of the largest crowds to ever see a basketball game in Freedom Hall.
“A week before the game, Rob Williams, (Ron) Mercer and two of their big guys came to Johnson City,” said former Science Hill guard Jovann Johnson. “They were talking trash, saying how they were going to beat us by 40 points. We had a lot of ammunition going into that game.
“There were probably less than 10 people in Freedom Hall that thought we were going to win, and those were our parents. Nobody thought we had a chance. They were No. 3 in the country and were known for being a juggernaut. They even looked like a college team. When we came out on the court, I thought everything was in slow motion. That’s how big of a game it was.”
Former Science Hill head coach George Pitts said: “Rob (Williams), who was one of our better players, decided he wanted to go to Oak Hill his senior season and play with Mercer. They were friends at the time. Rob did what he thought was best for Rob. I didn’t like it all that much. I called up Steve Smith and asked him if he would be interested in coming to Johnson City to play us in a game. We would give them $2,500.
“That was a pretty good guarantee for a game in 1994. He accepted and we signed a contract. We sold 7,000 pregame tickets at $6 apiece a week ahead of time. We could have sold 1,000 more at the game, but it was sold out.”
The ’Toppers — known for their relentless full-court press and playing hard for a full 32 minutes — were coming off of a TSSAA state championship the previous spring. Oak Hill was coming off of back-to-back national championships and had a combined 69-1 record over the previous two seasons.
The 1994-95 Oak Hill team was exceptional and featured Mercer, who went on to win the 1996 NCAA title with Kentucky and was selected sixth overall in the 1997 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. He enjoyed eight seasons in the league with seven different teams.
The ’Toppers were ranked No. 11 in the USA Today polls while the Warriors were ranked No. 3.
Oak Hill owned a 24-15 lead at the end of the first quarter after Science Hill’s Nathaniel Bailey hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The ’Toppers went on a stunning 14-0 run and seized a two-point edge. Science Hill led at the intermission by six points over the mighty Warriors.
“I don’t remember exactly when it was in the game, but when Mercer fell on me and knocked my front two teeth out, I was bleeding pretty bad,” former Science Hill guard Gabe Goulds said. “They took me back into the locker room and I was pretty much in a dentist’s chair the rest of the evening. They had it going on the radio, though.”
After Mercer put Oak Hill on his back and cut the lead to two points with 50 seconds to go in the third, Johnson took control of the game.
As time was winding down, Johnson was driving to the basket and made a layup that gave Science Hill a commanding 80-69 lead. The ’Toppers never gave up the lead once they seized it in the second quarter.
The full-court pressure initiated by Pitts wore down the Warriors and they eventually gave in. Science Hill pulled out a massive upset, 82-72.
“We grossed $42,000 that night,” Pitts said. “We gave Oak Hill their $2,500, paid the expenses for the officials, security and all that other stuff. We still had enough to buy the athletic department a new bus. The environment that night was unbelievable.”
Mercer had one of his usual monster games with 38 points and 14 rebounds, but Johnson matched him almost blow-for-blow with 28 points and six rebounds.
“The one thing I remember about the game is we could do nothing with Mercer. But, they couldn’t do anything with Jovann,” Pitts said.
One of the keys in the Hilltoppers’ triumph was the help Johnson got from his teammates. Brad Fields totaled 15 points and Odarius Williams yanked down 11 rebounds. Also, Bailey added 17 points.
Science Hill did not shoot particularly well — 38.4 percent (28-73) — and went only 5 of 29 from 3-point range.
“It was a great night for basketball in Johnson City,” Pitts said. “It’s a game that people still talk about to this day and it’s something our players will remember for the rest of their lives.
“For our guys to be playing against that team in that spotlight was incredible. The only crowds that we played in front of that were bigger were at the state tournament against Whites Creek and 7,000 of them were not for Science Hill.”
Added Johnson: “I still think that I haven’t played in a game with that kind of environment. It was incredible. It was an all-out great game. Even in my senior year and in college, nothing compares to the atmosphere of that game.”
Goulds echoed those sentiments.
“Before the game, when were riding the bus over to Freedom Hall, there were so many people,” he said. “We felt like rockstars. I went hard that night, but I ended up going home early.”
OAK HILL (72)
McFarland 0-2 0-2 0, R. Williams 4-10 3-4 12, Hamilton 2-2 0-0 4, Mercer 13-27 9-11 38, Smith 1-5 1-1 3, Whitaker 5-9 1-2 11, Stinson 1-3 0-0 2, Crumble 0-0 0-0 0, Brewer 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 27-59 14-20 72.
SCIENCE HILL (82)
Goulds 0-2 0-0 0, O. Williams 2-5 5-7 9, Johnson 11-16 6-7 28, Bailey 5-17 6-8 17, Fields 5-12 3-5 15, McHone 3-5 0-0 7, Collins 1-7 1-5 3, Harmon 1-9 0-0 3, Swafford 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-73 21-32 82.
Oak Hill 24 9 19 20 — 72
Science Hill 15 24 18 25 —82
3-pt goals -- Oak Hill 4-15 (Mercer 3-7, R. Williams 1-5 Stinson 0-1, McFarland 0-2); Science Hill 5-29 (Fields 2-6, McHone 1-1, Bailey 1-8, Harmon 1-9, Johnson 0-1, Goulds 0-2, O. Williams 0-2). Rebounds -- Oak Hill 43 (Mercer 14, Whitaker 10); Science Hill 46 (O. Williams 11, Fields 9). Assists -- Science Hill 13 (O. Williams 6). Steals -- Science Hill 10 (Collins 3).