Hilltoppers won three Arby’s Classic titles during the 1990s

Nathaniel Bailey (left) and Rob Williams during a recent reunion of players from the ultra-successful Science Hill basketball teams of the 1990s.

By Trey Williams

After finishing runner-up to Nashville Whites Creek in the 1990 Arby’s Classic and coming in third in 1992, Science Hill broke through by beating B.J. McKie-led Irmo (South Carolina) at the buzzer in the 1993 championship game.

It was the first of three Arby’s Classic titles the Hilltoppers would win in a seven-year span. They also won the Arby’s in ’95 and ’99 and finished runner-up in ’94 and ’98.

But the ’93 title had the Hollywood ending. Bailey, a cat-quick sophomore guard, had missed a jumper he took unnecessarily with Science Hill leading in the final minute.

George Pitts’ Hilltoppers almost invariably closed the deal in that era, but Bailey’s error appeared to have proven fatal when Irmo took a one-point lead with a basket and an opportunity for a free throw with seven seconds left. The free throw, however, was missed and Jay Jay Swartz rebounded and threw the outlet to Bailey. He bolted down the court into the lane before dishing off to Jovann Johnson, who banked in a game-winning layup at the buzzer.

“I had made a stupid play right before that,” Bailey said Monday. “We were up and I had shot a jumper. Instead of letting them come foul me, I shot a jumper and missed. I think there was like 14 seconds left. Oh, Coach Pitts chewed me out: “What are you doing!”

Bailey was thinking about redemption when he got the pass from Swartz.

“I had just made that dumb play,” Bailey said. “So that was on my mind. I’m young and that was on my mind. So when he got the rebound and got me the ball, I was gonna shoot the ball again. When I went down I was gonna pull up for the jumper.

“But when I went up to take the jumper I look and see him under the basket. So I just threw it straight to him. He was wide open.”

It was a tough play for Bailey when considering the do-or-die moment of a disappearing clock. And Bailey would’ve had a good look, but not a point-blank opportunity.

“I remember Nookie driving the length of the floor,” Johnson said Monday, “getting literally to the rim and jumped, I believed, to shoot. I position myself to try to box out and get a tip-in if he misses. Nook drops a dime to me.

“At this point everything was literally in slow motion. I see the ball coming towards me. I grab it. Get it up off the glass. Ball goes in. Buzzer sounds.”

And then all hell broke loose.

“Now everything is back on real time,” Johnson said. “I remember running by the bench and Coach Pitts was running as fast as I was onto the court. It went from celebration to … being on the bottom of that dog pile. James Mock started pulling people off of me to free me (laughter).”

The Arby’s Classic transformed Viking Hall into Science Hill’s home away from home in the ‘90s. Players such as Shane Williams, Rob Williams, Damon Johnson, Demetric Stevens and Brad Fields made Science Hill as athletic and talented, if not as tall, as most of the out-of-area powerhouses.

Science Hill beat Ron Mercer when he was a junior at Nashville Goodpasture in the Arby’s Classic, and then defeated Mercer when he and fellow transfer Rob Williams played for Oak Hill in a sold-out Freedom Hall in December of ’94.

Later that month, Science Hill lost 76-73 to Augusta-Westside in the Arby’s championship game. Westside had Ricky Moore (UConn) and William Avery (Duke). ESPN2 televised the game.

Another Mount Rushmore-type win was in the ’93 Arby’s semifinals against Miami Northwestern, which had Corey Louis (6-foot-10), Darius Cook (6-9) and Tim James (6-7) slamming for a capacity crowd.

“To me, outside of the Oak Hill game,” Johnson said, “those games playing in the Arby’s Classic against Irmo, Miami Northwest, Augusta Westside (Ricky Moore, William Avery) was our March Madness. Packed house, screaming fans and the atmosphere was unreal.”

The magnitude of the event was even greater when entertainment options were far fewer and attention spans weren’t diluted by the internet and social media.

Demetric Stevens had a tournament for the ages while leading the Hilltoppers to the 1999 Arby’s Classic title.

“As a kid in Upper East Tennessee we loved the Arby’s,” said Bailey, who signed with Bill Foster’s Virginia Tech out of high school and was Rick Barnes’ first signee at Texas out of junior college. “The Arby’s was the best thing on earth to us. We looked forward to playing in the Arby’s at Science Hill. To play in the Arby’s was better than – besides playing in the state tournaments, it was the highlight of our years, especially when we played Miami Northwestern. That might be the most intense game I ever played in at the Arby’s.”

Miami Northwestern led 42-30 at the half, but Science Hill outscored it 50-23 after intermission. Swartz scored 15 points and one of his 3-pointers capped an 18-3 run that gave the ‘Toppers a 48-45 lead.

Johnson, a 6-foot-1 jumping jack, had 21 points, five rebounds and three assists. High-flying Wayne Carroll scored 16 points. Rob Williams finished with 14 points and seven assists and Bailey scored 11 points, including consecutive baskets that gave Science Hill a 68-59 lead.

After losing to Westside in the final the following season, two-time defending state champion Science Hill won its 38th straight game when it defeated Franklin-Simpson (Kentucky), 88-50, in the ’95 Arby’s championship game. Bailey was named tournament MVP after tallying 18 points, seven assists and five steals.

Science Hill guard Demetric Stevens was the Arby’s MVP in ’99. He made a steal and drove the length of the court for a game-winning 3-pointer with 0.3 seconds left in a quarterfinals win against Dobyns-Bennett and tallied 22 points and seven rebounds in a 67-62 overtime win against Halston Lane-led Oak Ridge in the championship.

The Hilltoppers, in their first season under Mike Poe, recorded their most impressive win that year in the semifinals – a 79-74 triumph against Gainesville (Fla.), which was No. 7 in the USA Today poll. Gainesville had future NBA player Orien Greene, East Tennessee State Hall of Famer Jerald Fields and Ian Scott, who played football at Florida and in the NFL.

Scott said afterward he wasn’t sure a team had ever played better against his squad, which had won 25 straight games dating back to the previous season.

Science Hill was led by sophomore Rob Love’s 16 points. JaKeith Hairston was 6 of 6 from the field and 2-for-2 at the foul line. His free throws gave Science Hill a 77-74 lead with 22 seconds to go.

Stevens (14 points) hit two free throws with 10 seconds left to conclude the scoring. Hairston’s brother B.J., who had an excellent tournament, tallied 12 assists and one turnover.

Greene (19 points, six assists), Fields (16 points, nine rebounds) and Scott (11 points, nine rebounds) were productive for Gainesville.

A Louisville assistant was intrigued with Stevens, who eventually signed with Buzz Peterson at Appalachian State and ended up at Walters State, where veteran coach Bill Carlyle said he was the most promising guard he’d had in a long, long time.

“I loved Demetric,” said Bailey, who noted Rob Williams being Science Hill’s most polished guard when he was in high school. “I loved Demetric’s game. Demetric has us in him. And I think Demetric – he might’ve been better than us. You know, he might’ve been better than us. Some people say he is, some people say I was.

“I can’t argue with nobody’s opinion. He played with us at a young age and he held his own. And we had some players at Science Hill.”


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