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Defensive effort set tone for Hilltoppers' big season

Jeff Birchfield • Apr 8, 2020 at 10:00 AM

Science Hill had a season to remember on the basketball court.

Featuring a strong team defense, Hilltoppers started off the season with a 15-game win streak and ended with 32 victories overall.

Jake Matherne, a Johnson City Press All-Northeast Tennessee first-team selection, led the Hilltoppers with 10.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Jordan McLoyd, also an All-NET selection, was next with 10.4 points.

Other leaders included guard Griffin Ballard, who averaged three assists per game and hit 76 percent from the free-throw line. Keynan Cutlip was the team leader in 3-point goals and Thomas Messimer hit 81 percent of his free throws.

THE HILL-STOPPERS

The Hilltoppers started off the season Nov. 23 with a 73-26 romp over host Johnson County in a TSSAA Hall of Fame contest. After beating Elizabethton in similar fashion, they continued to set the tone defensively in the Food City Thanksgiving Classic at Sullivan East.

They held Sullivan Central to 26 points, South Greene to 45, Hampton to 39 and Sullivan East to 47 in earning the tournament championship. Matherne earned MVP honors after scoring 16 points in a 67-47 championship win over the host Patriots.

Cutlip and Ballard also earned all-tournament honors, while it was the lowest scoring total for Sullivan East in nearly a year.

A week later, Science Hill donned old-school uniforms playing at the original Topper Palace in a 69-55 win over previously undefeated Farragut. The “Hill-Stoppers” nickname was given to the team in the next performance. Science Hill held Stone Memorial to 22 points through three quarters in a 56-37 win.

The Big Seven Conference season opened with a win at Cherokee. Science Hill then defeated Tennessee High 55-44 in the first league showdown as Matherne posted a double-double of 17 points and 11 rebounds. McLoyd with 11 points and Cutlip with 10 hit double figures, but it was again the vaunted defense that was the biggest difference.

Science Hill defeated Gate City 70-66 on Dec. 20, handing the Blue Devils their first loss at home in nearly five years. Cutlip led the way with 17 points, followed by McLoyd with 13 and Hunter Phillips with 11 points.

A week later in the semifinals of a Honolulu tournament, the Hilltoppers defeated San Marcos (Calif.) 68-60 in a battle of previously unbeaten teams. Phillips and Matherne each scored 15 points, while McLoyd was on their heels with 14 points.

The Hilltoppers suffered their first loss, 65-59 to host Punahou, in the final on Dec. 31. Thomas Messimer paced Science Hill with 11 points, while McLoyd also reached double figures with 10 points.

CONFERENCE CHAMPS

In the first game of 2020, the Hilltoppers earned a hard-fought 68-63 win at Daniel Boone. Matherne continued his high rate of play, going 9 of 11 from the field to score 18 points while adding 10 rebounds. Phillips came through with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

The Hilltoppers continued to roll, taking a 76-73 overtime win over Dobyns-Bennett with first place in the Big Seven Conference on the line. With Science Hill ranked No. 4 in the state’s Class AAA rankings, McLoyd hit a pair of go-ahead free throws and the game-clinching foul shots.

The senior guard scored 21 points, which included 12 of 14 free throws, and he dished out six assists. After earning a big non-conference win over Mountain Heritage, N.C., the Hilltoppers suffered their first league loss, 65-60 to Tennessee High on Jan. 24.

Dobyns-Bennett avenged the earlier loss with their 68-63 victory on Feb. 7. Despite that, Science Hill finished strong, capturing the Big Seven Conference title with an 86-45 romp over Volunteer.

POSTSEASON RUN

It set the stage for the District 1-AAA tournament in Rogersville. Science Hill easily defeated Tennessee High and Dobyns-Bennett on back-to-back nights for the district title. It was the defensive end where the Hilltoppers excelled, holding the Vikings to 45 points and the Indians to 47 points.

Ballard earned MVP honors, while McLoyd led the team in the title game with 14 points.

The lockdown defense continued through the Region 1-AAA tournament with Science Hill holding Jefferson County to 43 points, South-Doyle to 32 points and Dobyns-Bennett to 40 points.

Amare Redd, who had 13 points and 18 rebounds in the semifinal win over South-Doyle, was named the tournament MVP. He had 13 points and 10 rebounds in the championship game, which was a milestone 500th career coaching win for Ken Cutlip.

The season ended with a thud, what Cutlip called the worst performance of the season in an 84-66 sectional loss to Oak Ridge. Although it was one game short of qualifying for the state tournament, it was a definitely a season to remember.

Not only did the Hilltoppers sweep conference, district and region titles, the 32 wins were the most since the 2012-13 season.

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