By Trey Williams
When Melissa McCray arrived at Science Hill from Rutledge prior to her junior year in 1983, no one in Johnson City knew she could play basketball.
Two seasons later everyone in the state knew, including Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.
McCray, who died from cancer at 43 in 2010, moved to Johnson City after playing two seasons for Doug McBee at Rutledge. She was leaning toward not playing basketball at Science Hill, which had won all of four games the previous season during coach Gary Scheuerman’s debut after compiling a one-win season the year before Scheuerman took over.
The 5-foot-11 McCray wasn’t thrilled about playing with a ragtag outfit, nor did she want to be the new kid in town taking minutes from program mainstays.
“She came in the classroom,” Scheuerman said Monday, “and she had a Rutledge jacket on and I said, ‘Where are you from?’ She said ‘Rutledge’ and I said, ‘Do you play basketball?’ She said, ‘Yes, but I don’t know whether I’m gonna play basketball here or not.’
“So I called her coach. It was McBee. His son played down at UT. And he said, ‘Coach, she can play.’ So finally we got her out – and she could play.”
Scheuerman couldn’t help but chuckle after his deadpan understatement. His ‘Toppers went 57-12 in two seasons with McCray and earned the program’s first two state tournament berths.
Science Hill defeated Jefferson County and 6-foot-4 Vanderbilt commitment Carolyn Peck in the regional final McCray’s junior season, winning the program’s first regional title after claiming its first conference title. She followed that by hitting a 16-foot game-winner against Campbell County in the sectional, securing the Hilltoppers’ first state tournament berth.
“Skeeter got the ball,” Scheuerman said, “between the foul line and the head of the circle and –‘bottom’ – she hit it and we won. And that’s the first time we ever went to the state. We had a big crowd, too.”
Campbell County had taken a 39-38 lead with 15 seconds left. McCray answered 10 seconds later. Shortly thereafter she felt like she was mobbed by half of the estimated 1,000 spectators in attendance. And it was wonderful.
“I’ll never forget the support we received from the fans and students at that game,” she said. “It makes you want to play a little bit harder when you see a crowd, and you see all of the students in the stands that you go to class with.”
In her final high school game, McCray scored 38 points in Science Hill’s 50-47 state tournament quarterfinal loss to Pearl-Cohn in 1985.
Tennessee assistant coach Holly Warlick was in attendance.
“I remember getting a call and hearing, ‘We’ve got to sign her,’” Summitt said during a 2006 interview. “Melissa left quite a mark on our program.”
Summitt had seen McCray in person when Science Hill sustained its first loss of the season to Sullivan North.
Summitt did the interview on some 30 minutes notice while walking on a treadmill in a Cleveland hotel the night before playing North Carolina in the Elite Eight.
The North Carolina angle was especially timely — McCray initially planned to become a Tar Heel — and Summitt thought highly enough of McCray for the impromptu interview.
McCray helped Summitt win her first two national championships in 1987 and ’89. She was in the first class, men’s or women’s, to go to four straight Final Fours.
North Carolina had offered McCray a year before Tennessee did. She’d taken a visit there along with Scheuerman, teammate Dawn Bradshaw and Bradshaw’s father to watch Dean Smith’s Tar Heels.
“North Carolina was the plan,” McCray said. “I was ready to tell people at Tennessee that I didn’t want to waste their time and money with a visit.”
But McCray couldn’t reach Tar Heels coach Jennifer Alley one particular day and went ahead with a Knoxville visit. And Summitt made an instant connection.
“She was very forthcoming, didn’t make any promises,” McCray said. “I liked her right away and loved the team chemistry. … I’ll never forget what she said that led to me picking UT. She said, ‘Imagine no time on the clock and you’re shooting free throws to win the game. Who do you want to be shooting for?’
“When I thought about it, I knew I wanted to be shooting for Tennessee.”
McCray played a key role in both national championships during an era headlined by Bridgette Gordon and Sheila Frost.
Tennessee was tied with 4:30 left in the Final Four against Long Beach State in ’87 when McCray began a decisive 9-0 run with consecutive jumpers. Long Beach entered averaging 94.4 points and a 32.5 average margin of victory and All-American Cindy Brown, who had scored 60 points in one game, called Tennessee corn-fed chicks following the game after taking exception to the Lady Vols’ physicality.
“It’s called defense,” McCray said. “She was Miss Finesse, not supposed to be touched I guess. I didn’t feel any sympathy for her.”
Summitt recalled McCray’s defense against Maryland in the 1989 Final Four.
“She had the task of covering a terrific point guard,” Summitt said. “I wasn’t pleased with how it started and we had a little prayer meeting at halftime. She was outstanding in the second half and very instrumental in us advancing to play Auburn for the championship.”
McCray led the Lady Vols in assists and was second-team All-SEC that year.
Scheuerman noted Summitt once describing McCray as one of her all-time favorite defenders.
“And she was one of the best leaders,” Summitt said. “She led by example, and she became one who could lead vocally too. I didn’t know if that part was in her when she first came to campus.”
Of course, Scheuerman didn’t know if any more basketball was in her when she first got to Science Hill’s campus.
“Skeeter could do things with a basketball that boys could do,” Scheuerman said. “And the girls basketball was the same size then. She could handle the basketball. She had a jump-shot.
“We’d get ahead and we could go to the Four Corners. Skeeter was the main person in the Four Corners.”
McCray averaged 20 points and 9.5 rebounds as a senior.
“She was special,” Scheuerman said. “I believe this with all my heart: there’s not been any better girls basketball player in this area from the time she played on. She could play – and she was a heck of a kid.”