Science Hill gets second chance at state title
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MURFREESBORO — On March 10, 2012, Science Hill got a shot at a girls state basketball championship.
For 364 days, the hunger has burned for a second chance. Feast or famine time comes today.
When the Lady Hilltoppers tip off against Murfreesboro Riverdale, they will be trying to make a noise heard across the nation.
The Lady Warriors are 34-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country by ESPN and MaxPreps. One more win and they are national champs. All they have to do is beat a team they defeated in last year's Class AAA title game (70-55) and this season at home (89-70).
In the interview room after Science Hill's semifinal blowout of Memphis Overton on Friday, it was clear the Lady Hilltoppers respect Riverdale. But it's not a trembling fear.
And the whole No. 1 team in the nation thing?
“Any day any team can be beaten, no matter how high they are ranked,” said Science Hill senior guard Shy Copney.
Her coach, Darrell Barnwell, was right in step, “How did Riverdale get to No. 1? Because the No. 1 team in the nation got beat. I'm looking forward to it.”
Barnwell isn't kidding. His team is ranked No. 11 in the nation, and there's no reason for Science Hill to back down to this challenge.
Riverdale has a first-year head coach in Cory Barrett. He came from Hickman County, and has family ties — by marriage — to Middle Tennessee State University head coach Rick Insell.
Barrett said the December meeting between Science Hill and Riverdale doesn't mean much now.
“You can't put stock into that game,” said Barrett. “Both teams will come out and try to put it all on the line. They've got a great team, and we've got a great team. It may be 98-95, but as long as Riverdale is on the left side of that score that's fine with me.”
In the December meeting, Riverdale got 25 points from Shelbie Davenport, 21 from Tyisha Petty and 13 each from Alex Middleton and Olivia Jones.
Science Hill got 16 points from Morgan Knack, 15 from Gabby Lyon and 10 from Tianna Tarter.
Copney scored just five points in the game, but she was far less than 100 percent. So the championship game will be doubly special for her.
She was forced to watch last year's title game in pain — having suffered a knee injury in the 49-45 semifinal victory over Clarksville.
This time, Copney will be on the court — and healthy.
“I'm nervous, especially since I haven't played in a championship game yet,” said Copney. “I will just do what I do.”
Barnwell chuckled slightly at Copney's confidence. He said it sure is nice to have her back in the lineup this time. Watching her play Wednesday and Friday, it seems clear she is back to 100 percent effectiveness.
“It sure is nice to have all our of weapons,” said Barnwell.
Make no mistakes, Riverdale brings it. The Lady Warriors play at a pace and speed rarely seen at the high school level.
Insell reportedly said Jones, an MTSU signee, could help his team right now. And that's a team with a record of 22-7 and an NCAA tournament berth likely waiting in the wings.
Jones sure looked the part when she blew past over half of Memphis Central's defense for a layup in Friday's 85-64 win.
Now picture a player like Jones just being one of the girls for Riverdale. It's a starting lineup of great scorers with Petty (1,729), Tiffany Lewis (1,470), Middleton (1,460), Jones (1,458) and Davenport (1,376) easily over the 1,000-point mark. Since Petty and Jones arrived at Riverdale, the Lady Warriors have a record of 132-7.
Petty has also signed with MTSU while Middleton, a junior, is weighing major Division I offers from schools like Tennessee. Lewis and Davenport are getting offers from mid-majors.
Science Hill counters with its own quintet of 1,000-point scorers: Copney, Tarter, Enjelica Reid, Lyon and Knack. Since Copney and Reid arrived at Science Hill, the Lady Hilltoppers are 130-15.
Sometime over the summer, Copney will join forces with Petty and Jones at MTSU.
“They are really good players, but right now we are enemies,” said Copney. “I'm not thinking about being friends until after the game.”
Like Science Hill, Riverdale doesn't just boast scorers. The Lady Warriors hound opponents with a fullcourt press that can trigger big runs in the blink of an eye.
“Their press is a killer,” said Copney. “Their energy is amazing.”
One thing Riverdale does well is force the opponent into a pace they may not be comfortable playing. However, Tarter said the Hilltoppers need to focus on what they do best.
“We've got to play our game, and not play their game,” said Tarter.
Copney said the Hilltoppers fell prey in December.
“When we played them, they took the game over,” she said.
Barnwell said his team wants to play fast, but also play effectively.
“I'm sure this is what a lot of people wanted to see,” said Barnwell. “It's the two top teams in the state, just like last year.
“I have to believe we will get off to a better start than last year. But remember after we got down by 25 points (30-5), we cut it to seven points (58-51) in the fourth quarter.”
Barnwell said his team is fully prepared to take its best shot at reversing last year's result.
“Our kids are ready for the challenge,” said Barnwell. “I feel confident in our kids, and I feel they are prepared. We've had one goal all year, and that is to win a state championship. Now we have a chance to do that.
“I think it will be a fun game. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes will win.”