MURFREESBORO — Riverdale ruled the nation Saturday.
Ranked No. 1 in the country by ESPN and MaxPreps, the Lady Warriors protected their turf and won their second straight Class AAA state basketball championship with a 78-69 decision over Science Hill at Murphy Center.
The Lady Hilltoppers, who are ranked No. 11 in the nation, ended with a record of 35-4 and finished runner-up for the second straight season. Two of Science Hill's losses this year came to the Lady Warriors.
“It is a disappointment,” said Science Hill head coach Darrell Barnwell. “We had one goal of being state champs, and we had a chance to take advantage of it. But we came up a little short — about six minutes short.”
Science Hill earned the rare distinction of being eliminated by the eventual state champion for the third straight season. The Lady Hilltoppers were beaten in the state semifinals by Memphis Central in 2011.
“It feels good to accomplish that, but at the same time it's disappointing,” said Science Hill senior Shy Copney. “We got so far, but we just couldn't pull it off.”
Riverdale won its 58th consecutive game and finished with a record of 35-0. Of those 35 wins, Riverdale coach Cory Barrett said this was probably the most difficult.
“It was probably the toughest because of the magnitude of the game,” Barrett said.
The defining moments of the game came early in the fourth quarter. Morgan Knack set things up by leaning between two defenders and softly tossing in a buzzer-beater to cut Riverdale's advantage to 58-54 at the end of third quarter.
At that point, Riverdale had to be feeling the heat.
“Maybe so,” said Barrett. “These kids are 15-16-17 years old. It's a lot to deal with, but I thought we handled it well.”
Said Barnwell, “When we cut it to four points, we talked about the pressure being on them. I felt like we had a good chance. The kids battled and did everything we asked.”
Science Hill kept the heat on the Lady Warriors, but Keisha Gregory missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity with 7:45 left in the game. Tarter followed with a pair of free throws, and Riverdale was staggering a bit as Science Hill closed to 58-56.
Riverdale still looked shaky as Shanique Heard hit one of two free throws. However, on the next possession Science Hill had an unforced turnover.
Shelbie Davenport missed a layup with 5:54 to go, but got her own rebound and powered it in to make it 61-56.
Tarter got to the foul line, but missed the front end of an one-and-one opportunity. That set up arguably the play of the game.
Alexa Middleton hadn't touched the ball on several possessions, but she brought the ball up the court to set up a play. She handed to a teammate, dashed to the corner, and came back out to get the ball.
Middleton spun around, and knocked the bottom out of the basket from about 26 feet to make it 64-56.
“Our kids can shoot from out there,” said Barrett. “They don't worry about the line. They shoot from 26-28 feet and don't change their form. We have some kids who can really stroke it.”
Heard scored on the next possession, and Science Hill never recovered from the 66-56 deficit.
Tyisha Petty was a big-time factor for the Lady Warriors, and was chosen as the tournament's most valuable player. She never came off the court, and had the ball in her hands a lot. The senior guard, who has signed with Middle Tennessee State University, finished with 16 points, seven assists, two steals and just two turnovers.
Science Hill kept fighting to the end. Tarter's trey ball with 2:47 to go gave the Hilltoppers a brief hope, but Middleton answered with a pair of free throws to push it back to 71-61.
Tarter took only nine shots in the game, making seven of them, but Barnwell said he didn't have a problem with the shot distribution.
“That's a typical game for us,” said Barnwell. “We spread it out pretty good, and they had to respect everybody on the floor. And they also did a good job of denying (Tarter) the ball and keeping it out of her hands.”
In the final 1:23, Riverdale made 7 of 10 free throws to seal the deal.
Tarter led the Hilltoppers with 19 points. She also added four rebounds, three assists, two steals and an impressive blocked shot of Davenport — but she was mysteriously left off the all-tournament team.
Making the omission more glaring was Tarter helping the Lady Hilltoppers break Riverdale's vaunted press with ease.
“When we lost to them last year, their press got to us,” said Barnwell. “This time we did a great job against their press. I don't think they turned us over one time in the front court in the first half. It became a halfcourt game, which is what we wanted.”
Lyon was fierce in the paint, finishing with 14 points and 10 rebounds. In the first half Lyon kept the Lady Hilltoppers afloat, getting five buckets and looking smooth and strong.
“Most of their players are quick guards, so I knew I could post them up,” said Lyon, who was 7 of 12 from the field in the game.
Despite massive foul trouble, Enjelica Reid scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds. She said sitting on the bench was very tough.
“I wanted to be out there and battle for every rebound and fight for every loose ball,” said Reid.
Copney added eight points and seven rebounds.
“I feel like I didn't show up like I could have,” said Copney, who has signed with MTSU. “If we had a few more stops on the defensive end, we could have pulled it off. We gave them some easy stuff.”
Knack chipped in with eight points and five assists.
Riverdale got a big boost from Jones, also an MTSU signee. She finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds.
Middleton had 20 points, hitting 6 of 9 shots from the field and all three of her 3-point attempts. She was also 5 of 5 on free throws.
Davenport totaled 13 points, four rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots.
Science Hill had a very impressive stretch in the second quarter, starting with Copney's trey ball to make it 17-16. That touched off a 13-7 spurt, which gave Science Hill a short-lived 26-24 lead with 5:02 left before the break.
On the next possession, Jones dialed in a 3-pointer to restore Riverdale's advantage. That shot helped Riverdale close the half with a 16-7 stretch for a 40-33 lead.
Copney, Reid and Lyon were chosen to the all-tournament team for Science Hill. The Lady Warriors had Jones, Middleton, Tiffany Lewis and Davenport on the squad.
Notes: Memphis Central star Nina Davis was chosen as the Class AAA Miss Basketball. She has signed to play at Baylor University. …
Riverdale has a sparkling all-time state tournament record of 16-2. The Warriors have won four state titles, also capturing championships in 2007 and 2010. …
Science Hill is 5-3 in the state tournament over the last three seasons.