By Matt Hill
It’s a rivalry that due to reclassification has pretty much been pushed aside, but in 1996 one of the top high school boys basketball series in the state at the time took center stage and provided quite possibly the greatest win in Elizabethton Cyclone hoops history.
On Jan. 30, 1996, Elizabethton went into the Topper Palace and shocked the nationally ranked Science Hill Hilltoppers 57-50 in double overtime in a game that people who were wearing orange and black that night have never forgotten.
Science Hill was coming off back-to-back state championships and with rumors going around that head coach George Pitts was highly interested in the ETSU job, the ‘Toppers looked like they weren’t going to be stopped.
Elizabethton meanwhile was the hunter looking to stop the hunted. In the first part of conference play, the Cyclones conquered everyone except the Hilltoppers.
Science Hill easily won the first meeting in Elizabethton 76-53 on Jan. 5, but the Cyclones still believed they had the talent to knock off the ‘Toppers.
Elizabethton had four premier players in Patrick Norman, Caleb Gilmer, Tim McLeod and Nathan Copeland with three other solid contributors in Josh Wandell, Adam Walton and Brett Ellis. All of the players mentioned above were seniors except Ellis, who was a sophomore.
Of course Science Hill had a deeper team and its lineup included Jovann Johnson, Nathaniel Bailey, Jeremy McHone, Brad Fields and Gabe Goulds.
Though a lot of Cyclone fans thought EHS had a shot at ending the streak, the Cyclones really hadn’t proven it yet.
Finally though, that night in a steamy “Topper Palace” proved to be the breaking point in ending the Cyclones quest of defeating their arch-rival.
The “Toppers” had a 47-game winning streak going into the game, but the Cyclones were not intimidated.
Elizabethton led 28-26 at the half and by the fourth quarter, one of the greatest games ever played in Northeast Tennessee had developed.
The Cyclones held a 38-34 advantage at the end of the third quarter, but the ‘Toppers had one more run in them.
There was only a few problems for Science Hill. No. 1, Brad Fields was out with an illness and did not play and No. 2, Jovann Johnson was in foul trouble and in real danger of fouling out.
Johnson was the player of the year in Northeast Tennessee the year before and helped lead the ‘Toppers to a victory over Oak Hill Academy during the 94-95 season.
Getting Johnson out of the game became a top priority for head coach Tony Hardin and the Cyclones.
Said Cyclone forward Caleb Gilmer in the Jan. 31, 1996 Star. “We went back in our matchup defense and keyed Jovann. We played it tight in the paint so Jeremy McHone wouldn’t in the game.”
McHone burned the Cyclones for 21 points at Elizabethton earlier in the month, but was held to eight on the night.
Johnson fouled out with just over two minutes left in regulation. Suddenly, the ‘Toppers were without two of their top three players.
The game became a defensive struggle with the Cyclones and Toppers tied 44-44 after regulation and 46-46 after overtime.
The overtime was not without a little controversy as a bucket by Goulds was waved off as a charge was called.
This is what the Cyclones needed and a fresher EHS group was prepared to take the historic win.
No shot in the game was bigger than a three-pointer by Cyclone point guard Patrick Norman at the beginning of the overtime that put Elizabethton ahead to stay at 51-48.
When you think of Cyclone hoops, the Norman name comes up in a lot of conversations as Wayne Norman and the late Nathan Norman were outstanding players in the 80s and 90s for EHS.
Patrick later went on to win the District 1-AAA Tournament MVP, but no shot he ever hit was quite as big as that three at the Palace.
“I kind of thought it wouldn’t happen at one time. We knew we had to work hard for it. If you don’t work hard for it, you don’t get it. We came out here as focused as we could be,” Norman said in The Star.
Tim McLeod pretty much iced it with a layup and Gilmer closed the door with three free throws at the end.
The Cyclone students stormed the court and Gatorade was poured on Coach Hardin. Most of the Elizabethton fans didn’t leave the gym until well after the game was over.
Elizabethton Head Coach Tony Hardin said: “We had to win this game one trip down the floor at a time. I told them there was nothing that was going to bother them tonight. No excuses. They went out there and did it. They did a great job.
One other note, all three games between Elizabethton and Science Hill that year, people had to be turned away at the door. You don’t find that too often these days.
This event has unfortunately been forgotten about by a lot of people not directly involved or at the contest, but to me this is the most memorable game I have ever seen.
History was made by the orange and black and it’s something we will probably never see the likes of again.
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What happened after that historic game:
*Science Hill went on to win the conference title after Elizabethton lost late-season games to Sullivan South and Sullivan Central.
*The Science Hill and Elizabethton rivalry was the hottest around, so much so that one of the Topper players wished Dobyns-Bennett good luck in front of the crowd before the Cyclones’ District semifinal game with Dobyns-Bennett, the Toppers biggest rival traditionally.
*Elizabethton and Science Hill met again in the District 1-AAA Championship. The Cyclones defeated the ‘Toppers again 57-50 and won its last Class AAA District crown.
*Everything went right in that championship game, including a three pointer at the end of the third by sophomore Brett Ellis, who went on to attend the Air Force Academy.
*Unfortunately for the Cyclones, the dream season came to a halt five days later in Johnson City after the Cyclones were upset by a Dobyns-Bennett team EHS had easily handled three-times earlier in the year.
*Elizabethton went on to defeat Science Hill in 2000 before reclassification pretty much ended this outstanding rivalry.
*Science Hill lost to Murfreesboro Oakland in the first round of the state tournament. The ‘Toppers won the Region and won their substate game.
*Tony Hardin went on to win two Class AA regional titles at EHS after reclassification before heading to Maryville Heritage.
*Of the players who saw most of the action, Adam Walton, Caleb Gilmer, Patrick Norman, Tim McLeod, Brett Ellis and Nathan Copeland were all solid contributors on collegiate athletic teams. Copeland played a year of minor league baseball with the Danville Braves.