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 TSSAA Class AAA girls state basketball championship with a 78-69 decision over Science Hill at the Murphy Center.
The Lady Hilltoppers (35-4), ranked 11th nationally, 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 Lady ’Toppers 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 ’Toppers lost to Memphis Central in the state semifinals 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.
“When we cut it to four points, we talked about the pressure being on them,” Barnwell said. “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 1-and-1 opportunity with 7:45 left in the game. Tiana Tarter followed with a pair of free throws, and Science Hill closed to 58-56.
Riverdale’s Shanique Heard hit 1 of 2 free throws, but 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 a 1-and-1 — setting up arguably the play of the game.
Alexa Middleton brought the ball up the court to set up a play. She handed to a Warriors 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.
Heard scored on the next possession, and Science Hill never recovered. In the final 1:23, Riverdale made 7 of 10 free throws to seal the deal.
The Lady Warriors’ Tyisha Petty was named the tournament’s most valuable player. The senior guard, who has signed with Middle Tennessee State, finished with 16 points, seven assists, two steals and just two turnovers.
Middleton finished with 20 points, hitting 6 of 9 shots from the field and all three of her 3-point attempts. She was also 5-for-5 on free throws.
Tarter took only nine shots in the game, making seven, but Barnwell said he didn’t have a problem with the shot distribution.
“That’s a typical game for us,” he said. “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.”
Tarter led the Lady ’Toppers with 19 points. She also had four rebounds, three assists, two steals and an impressive blocked shot of Davenport — but she was left off the all-tournament team.
Gabby Lyon was fierce in the paint, finishing with 14 points and 10 rebounds. She kept the Lady ’Toppers afloat in the first half, getting five buckets and looking smooth and strong.
Despite massive foul trouble, Enjelica Reid scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds. Copney added eight points and seven rebounds.