By Trey Williams
The Science Hill girls basketball program developed a new state of mind this season.
And after reaching the state tournament a year ahead of schedule, thoughts immediately turned to a return trip to Murfreesboro following a state quarterfinals loss to Oak Ridge. The Hilltoppers will return four starters, including district and regional Most Valuable Player Alasia Smith, from a team that went 31-4.
The state tournament berth was Science Hill’s first since completing a three-peat in 2013 with players such as Tianna Tarter, Gabby Lyon, Shy Copney, Enjelica Reid and Morgan Knack.
“I know when we had those kids with Tianna and Gabby and those other kids, once you were fortunate enough to make it the first time they definitely wanted to go back the second time,” said Science Hill coach Scottie Whaley, an assistant for Darrell Barnwell on the 2010-13 teams. “I think once you’ve been there and you experience it – it’s a humbling experience, and I think once you’re kids get there they’re motivated to make it back.”
Smith, whose mother Leah Jackson played in multiple sectional games at Science Hill, has been motivated to reach Murfreesboro since she was eight years old watching her sister Shae help comprise a three-peat.
“I was like seven, eight and nine down there,” Alasia said. “I felt like since they could do it, I felt like my group could do it.”
Smith, as tireless and determined as she is athletic, averaged around 17 points and 10 rebounds this season. She had 15 points and 10 rebounds in the 65-49 loss to Oak Ridge.
The ‘Toppers trailed the Wildcats, 31-28, with 3:36 left in the third quarter when Smith picked up her third foul. The deficit was 44-31 when she returned with 32 seconds left in the period.
“Alasia picked up her third foul,” Whaley said, “and then I think the moment just kind of hit us.”
Science Hill’s shining moment was a 55-52 home sectional win against Maryville (30-4), which had led Oak Ridge 48-44 with 2:20 remaining in the Region 2-AAA championship before losing on a Jada Guinn 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds remaining. Oak Ridge lost 56-50 to eventual state champion Bradley Central.
Smith had 27 points and 10 rebounds against Maryville and sophomore guard Jeila Greenlee made four 3-pointers and scored 19 points, including a contested 8-foot driving bank that gave Science Hill a 53-52 lead with 42 seconds left.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Greenlee said. “I’m so happy to be playing with these girls.”
Greenlee scored 13 points and went 4-for-4 at the foul line in the state tournament loss.
“Jeila’s unstoppable,” Smith said. “She’s one of the best sophomores I’ve ever seen. She was (Big Seven Conference) underclassman of the year and I understand that, because she can attack when it’s an important time.”
Returning starters will include point guard Aliyanna Hill and shooting guard Erin Egerbrecht. Freshman 5-foot-11 forward Nae Marion has exceptional potential.
The ‘Toppers must replace starter Symantha Fugate and Maddie Richmond, who logged plenty of minutes.
“They’re two super kids with great families,” Whaley said. “They’ve done everything the right way in our program. They do the right things every day. I’m happy they were able to make it to the state tournament. Sam’s gonna play at King University and Maddie’s going to school at Liberty. They’re gonna be successful in whatever they do.”
The future is cause for optimism for the ‘Toppers, too.
“It’s definitely bright,” said Whaley, who will spend part of spring break surely hearing about the past while playing golf with Gary Scheuerman, who coached the Melissa McCray-led ‘Toppers to back-to-back state tournament berths (1983-85). “We just have to make sure – first of all, as I told the kids, you have to stay humble and work hard every day to improve. Every day we talk about improving as a person first, and then as a player. We definitely have a lot of good kids coming back. We’ve just gotta stay focused.”
There will be time this spring to smell the proverbial flowers. Whaley smiles recalling “the pure joy” on his players’ faces after they beat Maryville and the pride felt while taking the court at Middle Tennessee’s Murphy Center.
“I’ve been blessed beyond belief to have made it and get to experience it,” Whaley said. “The last thing Darrell (Barnwell) told me – I talked to him before the game, and he said, ‘Just take it all in and enjoy the moment, because you don’t know if you’re gonna be back.’
“And that’s what I did. We just kind of looked around. It was great to get to see our kids experience that, our assistant coaches (Greg Goulds, Leah Smith, Dekeldric Felton, Gabby Lyon) experience that. The biggest thing I did was just watch our kids’ reactions. You could just tell on their faces that they were excited to be there. It was a lot of fun.”