Hilltopper basketball teams to be honored at ‘The Night of Champions’


1By Trey Williams

Science Hill basketball’s rich past will be present when the Hilltoppers host Daniel Boone on Friday.

The Night of Champions will honor Science Hill’s three state championship teams (1990, ’94 and ’95), two state runner-ups (1968, ’91) and two Lady Hilltoppers state runner-up teams (2012, ’13).

Science Hill assistant coach Jamar Love, an excellent player for the ‘Toppers in the late ‘90s, organized the event with former Science Hill football player Dana Whiteside.

Among those expected to attend are King University coach George Pitts, Tennessee Wesleyan coach Mike Poe and former Science Hill coach Elvin Little.

Pitts led the ‘Toppers to three state championships and a state runner-up finish. Little’s 1967-68 team reached the state championship game after advancing to the semifinals the previous season. Poe’s 2002 team finished state runner-up.

The players expected to attend include Shane Williams, Damon Johnson, Orville Whittington, Dee Dee Stuart, Tony Street, Brad Fields, Jerome Odem and Rob Love.

2Many ex-Lady ‘Toppers are playing in college, but Whiteside hopes those teams will be well represented, too.

Whiteside said Love first mentioned the idea to him last year.

“I thought it was a great idea and something that needed to be done,” Whiteside said. “And it was long overdue to recognize great achievements by young men and women from our city and community that set a standard that still influences today.”

Little’s 1967-68 Hilltoppers were led by seniors James “Percy” Hairston and Sammy “Dee Dee” Stuart. The 6-foot-3 Hairston, a long-armed left-hander, was a good perimeter shooter and a threat around the basket. Hairston, who died in 2011, was the state tournament MVP despite the Hilltoppers losing 67-61 to Richard Fuqua-led Riverside in the championship game. The 6-foot-4 Fuqua averaged 27 points per game during a career at Oral Roberts that led to his jersey being retired.

3Science Hill had beaten tournament favorite Memphis Carver, 77-73, the previous day in the semifinals. The ‘Toppers stunned the sold-out Mid-South Coliseum crowd (11,200) by building a 13-point lead

with 1:36 remaining, but Stuart fouled out and Carver rallied furiously to get within 74-71 with 30 seconds left.

Science Hill junior guard Tony Street made a pair of free throws with 21 seconds left to essentially seal it.

Hairston averaged a double-double as a freshman at Martin Junior College but things didn’t work out when he transferred to Middle Tennessee State.

4Stuart started in football and basketball at Bluefield State, where he played against future NBA players Marvin Webster and Henry Dickerson.

Senior Orville Whittington was the state tournament MVP when Pitts’ teams won the first of three state titles in 1990. Science Hill beat Chattanooga Tyner 69-52 in the championship game. The title game was light work compared to the heavy lifting done getting there. Whittington hit a game-winner to a cap an improbable rally against Sevier County in the sectional at Freedom Hall. That was followed by a triple-overtime win against Memphis Christian Brothers in the quarterfinals, which set up a semifinal showdown with Nashville-Whites Creek. The Cobras had a future NBA player in 6-foot-9 David Vaughn, had won the Arby’s Classic title the previous December and would beat Science Hill in the Arby’s championship game nine months after the state semifinal loss. But the Hilltoppers beat Whites Creek again in the 1991 state tournament en route to a heartbreaking, last-second runner-up finish to Memphis Hamilton.

The ’91 team included Shane Williams and Damon Johnson, who went on to start two seasons together at Tennessee. Williams’ brother Rob started on the 1994 state championship team. The Hilltoppers also won their first Arby’s Classic championship that season. State tournament MVP Jovann Johnson, Nathaniel Bailey, Odarius Williams, Brad Fields, Wayne Carroll and Swartz combined with Rob Williams to help give Pitts arguably his most athletic team to date.

The Hilltoppers repeated in ’95 despite Rob Williams transferring to Oak Hill where he played with Ron Mercer. Science Hill defeated Oak Hill in sold-out Freedom Hall that season.

Bailey was named state tournament MVP after the ‘Toppers defeated Chattanooga Brainerd, 77-56, in the ‘95 state title game. He was backed up adequately at point guard by Gabe Goulds. Andy Harman was a perimeter weapon for the ‘Toppers, who had a post threat in 6-foot-9 Jeremy McHone.

Coach Mike Poe’s Hilltoppers lost in the state championship game to White Station in 2002. White Station’s players included Dane Bradshaw (Tennessee) and Travis Strong (ETSU). Poe’s Hilltoppers had Rob Love, Jerome Odem, Nick Bradley, JaKeith Hairston, Bryson Bowling and Anton McKinney.

The Lady Hilltoppers got to the state championship game for the first time in 2012, but go-to player Shy Copney suffered a knee injury in the fourth quarter of a semifinal win against Bashaara Graves-led Clarksville.

Losing their second-best ball-handler prior to going against Riverdale’s press proved daunting, and Darrell Barnwell’s Lady ‘Toppers fell behind 26-3 at the end of the first quarter. They did rally to get back within single digits early in the fourth quarter thanks to sophomores Tianna Tarter (18 points) and Gabby Lyon (13) and freshman Keisha Gregory (13).

The same two teams met in the championship the following year, and Science Hill was within two points early in the fourth quarter before losing, 78-69, to the nation’s top-ranked team. The victory was Riverdale’s 58th straight. Tarter had 19 points for Science Hill.

“These teams worked extremely hard to get to where they were at,” Jamar Love said. “They had a major impact in our community, and still to this day people recollect back on those days.”

Indeed, Tony Street, who made the victory-sealing free throws in the semifinal win in 1968, was driving down Memory Lane while watching the Hilltoppers win their first title 22 years later.

“I actually drove to Murfreesboro the night they won their first state tournament,” Street said. “I just felt an urge to. I felt like they’d win it. Although we didn’t win it in ’68, I wanted to be there when they did win the first one. I felt like in a distant way that we’d been a part of building to that.”


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