JOHNSON CITY—The Oak Ridge Wildcats are heading back to the state tournament in Murfreesboro next week after their comeback 55-53 win against a hungry Science Hill group at Tuesday night’s Class AAA Sectional game. Two free throws by sophomore Tee Higgins with 5.1 seconds left and a defensive block by junior Javien Johnson with 0.8 seconds left helped the Wildcats pull away with the victory.
It seemed that Science Hill (23-15) couldn’t miss from the floor in the first half. The Hilltoppers hit six three-pointers in the first half—four in the first quarter alone. One of those four included a buzzer-beating three at the end of the first quarter. With the buzzer-beater, the Hilltoppers had a 16-12 lead on the Wildcats.
In the second quarter, Oak Ridge (29-3) fell behind quickly. At one point, the Wildcats were down 24-14. However, thanks to two three-pointers by sophomore DeAndre Gibson, the Wildcats were able to gather themselves and go on a 13-6 run to end the quarter. With one half in the books, Oak Ridge was trailing 30-27.
The second quarter was the only quarter of the game that didn’t have a tie or a lead change. Oak Ridge had three three-pointers in the first half, all of them courtesy of Gibson (2) and sophomore Tajion Jones (1).
The Hilltoppers battled back in the second half. After Oak Ridge jumped out to a 34-30 lead, the Hilltoppers rattled off seven straight points to take the 37-34 lead. Oak Ridge pulled within a point of taking the lead back, and Science Hill drained a three. There actually was a span of 30 seconds in the third that had four consecutive combined threes hit by both teams. However, the Wildcats scored late in the third to give themselves a 44-43 lead with one quarter left to decide who went to the state tournament and who stayed home.
The Wildcats simply did not give up in the final quarter. Oak Ridge battled hard until Science Hill finally caught up to them to tie the game at 53-53.
But with 5.1 seconds left on the clock, Higgins was fouled as he drove to the basket. Higgins hit both of the following free throws, giving Oak Ridge the 55-53 lead.
“You don’t get much (more) pressure on free throws than those two free throws he (Higgins) made at the end of the game,” Wildcats head coach Aaron Green said. “Sometimes it comes down to that.”
The Hilltoppers weren’t done, though. Senior Malik McGue got the ball with 5.1 seconds left, and the speedster ran up the court and drove to the basket. However, Oak Ridge’s Johnson was right there to smack the shot away with 0.8 seconds left on the clock.
The Hilltoppers actually got a shot off late, and it was a very good look. But the ball hit the outer rim, then the right rim, then fell to the ground.
No good. Game over. Wildcats win.
“Making it to a state tournament is very special,” an emotional Coach Green said after the game. “I’m just so proud of my players. They’ve put in a lot of time…I’ve very fortunate and very thankful that I’ve got a good group of kids to coach, and I’ve got great people around me. We’ve got great support here in Oak Ridge and great support from our administration. It’s a great place.”
Higgins led the team in scoring with 14 points—seven of those coming in the final quarter of play. Johnson was the only other Wildcat in double figures with 11 points.
Jones and Gibson both came off the bench nicely with nine points each. Geevanty Gee had seven, and Darel Middleton had four. E.J. Bush and Ted Mitchell rounded out the scoring for the Wildcats with two points each.
The Wildcats had six threes in this game—three in each half. They also shot 7-of-10 (70 percent) from the charity stripe.
Meanwhile, the Hilltoppers’ leading scorer was junior Peyton Wingate with 17 points. Wingate knocked down four of his team’s overwhelming nine three-pointers. Still, the team had four less threes on Tuesday than they did in their Region 1-AAA Championship game against Dobyns-Bennett on Sunday, when they made 13 shots from beyond the arc.
Kaden Wampler also helped out his team with 10 points. The Hilltoppers shot an average 12-of-19 (63.2 percent) from the free-throw line.
After the game, Hilltopper head coach Ken Cutlip was proud of his team’s effort.
“Our kids just battled and just improved all year,” Cutlip said. “We just competed, and that’s what you want. To compete…My congrats to Coach Green and his staff as well.”
Now with the state tournament in front of them, the Wildcats are ready for action. Their first challenge, a quarterfinal game, will be against the Memphis East Mustangs (19-9) on Wednesday, March 11, at 12:30 p.m. ET (11:30 a.m. CT) in the Murphy Center on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.
The winner of that game will go on to face the victor of the White County-Brentwood game, which takes place at 10 a.m. CT that same day.
It’s the third straight trip to state for the Wildcats. The boys’ team was state runner-up last year after a tough 60-58 loss to the Blackman Blaze. The Maryville Rebels, who won the Region 2-AAA Championship in a win over Oak Ridge on Sunday, will take on Blackman in a quarterfinal game at 1:15 p.m. CT Wednesday, March 11.
A full bracket of the Division 1 Class AAA State Tournament can be found here. Tickets will be $10 a day and $12 for the championship on Saturday, March 14, at 2 p.m. CT. Parking is also $5.
Trenton Duffer is a sports writer for the University of Tennessee Daily Beacon and a freelance contributor to Oak Ridge Today.
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