By Trey Williams
Good luck on carving out a Mount Rushmore for Science Hill basketball, but ironman Shane Williams was essentially George Pitts’ first rock star.
As a sophomore in 1989-90, Williams was the leading scorer on Science Hill’s first state championship team, which included senior All-State player Orville Whittington. Williams, a skinny, tough-minded combo guard who still holds minutes-per-game records at Tennessee, scored 18 of his 24 points in less than five minutes of the third quarter to help the Hilltoppers overcome a 15-point deficit in a 78-76 win against Sevier County in the 1990 Sectional at Freedom Hall.
He helped the ‘Toppers finish state runner-up the following year and exited Science Hill as its all-time leading scorer with 1,967 points.
The ‘Toppers beat David Vaughn-led Whites Creek both of those years in Murfreesboro. They finished 37-1 in ’90 and ended up ranked No. 15 in the nation by USA Today.
“The first time I saw Shane was in the sixth grade,” Pitts said. “Charlie Morgan and I were putting on a little clinic at the Boys Club. I knew right then he was going to be the real deal.”
Williams is Tennessee’s career leader in minutes per game (37.7). Fellow Science Hill alum Gary Carter is third (35.7).
“That’s crazy,” said Williams, now the coach at Tri-Cities Christian Academy. “That Johnson City mental toughness gets you through that stuff, I guess.”
Williams’ tough-mindedness took shape at Carver Rec.
“I was young,” Williams said, “playing against older guys like James Mock, Curly Hill, Gwan Hill, Davey Bowling, Andrel Anderson, Houston Scruggs and Melvin Stevens. … It created such a serious attitude.”
Whites Creek, which had Vaughn, a 6-foot-9 future NBA player, could speak to Science Hill’s seriousness. The Panthers, who defeated Science Hill in the 1989 Arby’s Classic, lost back-to-back years to the smaller ‘Toppers in the state tournament.
“They knew us, we knew them and there wasn’t really no surprises,” Williams said. “They could’ve got surprised maybe the first time, a bunch of little guys coming out and pressing them. But the second time we beat them – on the first night of the state tournament – I think was just a little bit more gratifying.”
Fearless and smart, Williams was the quintessential quarterback and clutch scorer.
Providence Academy coach Damon Johnson started with Williams for two years at Science Hill and for two seasons at Tennessee. Johnson chuckled at the joke, if not valid concern, about playing for Pitts and O’Neill causing PTSD.
But Williams embraced the rigid environments.
“Kevin O’Neill loved Shane because he was a coach on the floor,” Johnson said. “He didn’t have to tell him anything. He was a step ahead of the coach half the time. His IQ was super-high. O’Neill was asking him, ‘How do we guard this, Shane? How do we guard pick-and-roll?’ He was asking Shane stuff like that. So it was super-cool to have a point guard like that, but not only the point guard, but one of your best friends.”
O’Neill frequently picked Williams’ brain.
“O’Neill would ask me about different situations, like, ‘How do you get over that ball-screen,’” Williams said. “A lot of that stuff was just growing up and learning little tricks here and there. A lot of it is just determination and not wanting to be screened, like ‘I know they want to get this guy open.’ I was just trying to be relentless and do what I could for my team.
“And Kevin O’Neill helped a lot. … There was a lot of communication. And I’d been fortunate enough to play for Pitts and play at the Rec.”
One of Williams’ memorable moments playing for the Vols came at No. 3 Arkansas against Nolan Richardson’s defending national champion Razorbacks. Williams and Johnson each scored 16 for the Vols in a loss.
Arkansas had Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman and Corey Beck. UT, in O’Neill’s first season of attrition, had seven scholarship players.
“My junior college (Northeast Oklahoma) coach and his wife and a couple of players got to come over and watch,” Williams said. “And I actually played good. I played pretty much the whole game. There really ain’t no such thing as getting tired in that type of environment. You’re playing in front of Nolan and all those big-time players. Bud Walton (Arena) had just opened up.”
Another memorable night came when the Vols beat East Tennessee State, 81-74, on Dec. 4, 1994. ETSU had won the previous two meetings — in 1989-90 with Mister Jennings running the team and in 1991-92 thanks to a productive game from Jennings’ successor, Jason Niblett.
Johnson and Williams had played against ETSU players such as Jennings and Calvin Talford at Carver while at Science Hill.
The Les Robinson-Alan LeForce era began to fade fast with that 14-14 season, but the Buccaneers still had plenty of personnel with post Tony Patterson and guards Robert Doggett, Corrie Johnson and Geoff Herman, the latter of whom played at Chattanooga Tyner when it lost to Science Hill in the state championship when Williams was a sophomore.
Williams was impressed with the games of Johnson and Doggett.
“ETSU had some talent,” Williams said. “And it was a pretty good rivalry because, you know, Mister (Jennings) and them going down there and beating UT a couple of times before that. UT was trying to get back — trying to get that rivalry in hand.”
Science Hill’s current leading scorer, Jamar Livingston, played for Williams at TCCA last year. And Livingston’s dad Keilan said Williams is the primary reason his son is getting interest from the likes of ETSU, Central Florida and Tennessee Tech.
“Shane made him the player he is,” Keilan said. “For real – Shane made him who he is. I’ve told several people that. He gave him confidence.
“Shane built him as a guard. Shane let him play through a lot of mistakes. … That’s the only reason I took ‘Mar out there when Shane got the job. Shane stayed on him, drove him.”
Williams said he learned a thing or two from Pitts, who credited Williams with making him smarter when he was on the court.
“I’ve been blessed with many outstanding players,” Pitts said. “Shane is, without a doubt, the best guard I’ve ever coached.”