MURFREESBORO — It was an inadvertent pun, and perhaps overstated injured Science Hill starter Shy Copney’s absence, but the Murphy Center public address man seemed to sum up the Lady Hilltoppers’ state championship loss to Riverdale when he introduced them for the runner-up trophy presentation: “Science Hill came up just a little bit shy here today.”
Indeed, top-ranked Riverdale’s 15-point victory (70-55) seemed like a “little bit” after the way the game started. The Lady Warriors, who finished runner-up to Memphis Central last season, opened the game on a surreal 30-5 run against a team that was sporting a 38-0 record.
Science Hill appeared to be in awe of the magnitude of the moment, which was magnified by Copney standing on crutches under the basket during pre-game shootaround. Copney suffered a dislocated kneecap in the fourth quarter of Friday’s semifinal win previously unbeaten Clarksville.
Perplexed by Riverdale’s full-court press, the Lady ’Toppers had more turnovers than points for the first 10 minutes. Copney handles the ball more than any Science Hill player other than point guard Tianna Tarter, and her absence was glaring while the Lady ’Toppers struggled to get the ball into the frontcourt.
“That first quarter, I think, just overwhelmed us with all the emotion of everything, you know, playing our first state championship game,” Science Hill sixth-year coach Darrell Barnwell said. “I think it was just very hard. I mean, there was still a lot of emotion over yesterday’s win and Shy’s situation. We just couldn’t settle in.”
But just when you couldn’t help but wonder if Riverdale was going to set a championship-record margin of victory, Tarter and the ’Toppers found a groove. Tarter made a 3-pointer from the right corner on an assist from Shae Smith to make the score 30-8 with 6:33 left in the first half, and it ignited an 18-4 run that got Science Hill with 11 points.
Tarter’s put-back made the score 36-25 with 1:05 left in the first half, and although Riverdale ended the half on a 5-0 run to build the lead back to 41-25, the Lady Hilltoppers’ second-half surge cut the deficit to seven points twice early in the fourth quarter.
Freshman Keisha Gregory, starting in place of Copney, made a 3-pointer from the top of the key on an assist from Tarter to make it 56-49 with 6:24 left, and Tarter’s transition floater made it 58-51 with 5:07 to go.
“Finally it’s to the point where your back’s against the wall and you’ve gotta make a choice, and I think we made a good choice,” Barnwell said. “They responded and they gutted it out and finally started making some plays. … Tianna started looking at ways to attack the press and do some things. We did a good job of getting down the floor. We even forced them to come out of it (the press).”
Riverdale also beat Science Hill twice by 15 points in scrimmages last summer, including once in the Murphy Center during Middle Tennessee State’s team camp. Science Hill was without starter Enjelica Reed because of a knee injury in those games.
Lady Warriors coach John Wild said he tweaked his press from those games to try and keep the ball out of the middle of the floor.
“We jumped up on them but we told our kids in some of the media timeouts that they were gonna make a run on us,” Wild said. “They’re too good not to make a run at us, and they did. … That’s a credit to him (Barnwell) and his kids and their character and their passion to play. They’ve got great players and he does a great job. We have a great deal of respect for them.”
Physical 5-foot-11 forward Shacobia Barbee, who was announced as a surprise Miss Basketball winner over Clarksville’s Bashaara Graves after the game, had 20 points, nine rebounds and four assists for Riverdale. Her two free throws gave the Lady Warriors a 60-51 lead with 4:47 left, and Science Hill was never within seven points again.
Fellow frontcourt player Olivia Jones had 15 points and nine rebounds, and Alex Middleton (14) and Toyree Watkins (12) also scored in double figures.
Point guard Tyisha Petty, Barbee and Middleton each had four assists.
“I think our kids did a great job being unselfish with the basketball in the latter part of the game,” Wild said. “It’s almost like they know where each other’s gonna be because they’ve played together so long.”
Tarter, who played 32 minutes and seemed to be running all over the place every second of all of them, finished with 18 points.
“I think she’s one of the best young point guards in the state,” Wild said. “She’s awful quick with the ball. She can get in the lane and she makes her teammates better and she does a great job at finishing. There’s a lot of kids that can get into the lane and get to the rim but can’t finish. She does a great job finishing.
“With some work on her outside shot, she’s got SEC or ACC material, in my mind.”
Gregory made 3 of 4 from 3-point range en route to 13 points. Sophomore center Gabby Lyon had 13 points, five rebounds and four steals.
Lyon and Tarter have two years remaining, and Gregory has three. Science Hill doesn’t have a senior. The Lady Hilltoppers look like the preseason favorite next year.
“It’s gonna be us the next two years actually, I think,” Tarter said.
Junior Shae Smith had four points, nine rebounds and two steals for Science Hill.
Lyon, Tarter and Copney made the all-tournament team.
“Nothing is more important than my team,” Copney said. “I wanted it so bad for them. I just wanted to be out there to help them. This doesn’t really mean anything to me. A championship would’ve meant a lot.”