MURFREESBORO — RJ Robinson clearly knew his limitations against University High, but Middleton’s 1A Mr. Basketball winner didn’t seem to have many.
And the senior point guard didn’t miss often. Robinson’s 32-point outing in Friday’s 66-50 win over the Buccaneers propelled the Tigers into the TSSAA Class 1A championship game at Middle Tennessee State’s Murphy Center.
Robinson finished one rebound shy of a double-double while dishing out a team-high five assists. He shot 9-for-14 from the field and made 13 of 14 free throws.
“We got a hand up, and he was 3 feet above the hand,” University High coach Herman Rice said. “He’s one of the smartest players we’ve played against because he knows his game, knows where he can score.”
Trying to keep Robinson out of the paint, the Bucs had mixed results with their triangle-and-2 defense early.
Jordan Stewart’s layup gave the Tigers (30-1) a nine-point advantage at halftime. Baskets by Andrew Cole, A.J. Murphy and Pete Boynewicz pulled University High closer. Mason Croley buried a 3-pointer to make it a 42-40 game with 2:08 in the third quarter. But the Bucs didn’t score again for 4:18, and a 13-4 Middleton run resulted in a 61-46 lead with 1:48 to play.
“I’m heartbroken for the kids,” Rice said. “They fought. They played hard … we live and die by how we shoot, and we didn’t shoot extremely well tonight. And you can attribute some of that to Middleton.”
University High shot 41.3% (19-for-46) from the floor, which included a 4-of-19 clip from 3-point range. The Tigers made 45.8% of their shots (22 of 48) from the field and 18 of 22 from the foul line. Middleton also outscored the Bucs 24-10 off turnovers.
BUCS DON’T BACK DOWN
University High (23-13) saw the third state semifinal trip in program history come to a close. But from the beginning, the Bucs didn’t appear rattled by Tennessee’s top-ranked team.
After falling behind by nine, UH scored seven straight to end the first quarter and cut the deficit to 14-12 on Drew Finney’s layup. Cole’s tip-in got the Bucs within 20-19 in the second quarter, but Middleton never relinquished the lead.
“They were very physical, and we knew it was going to be a physical ballgame,” Middleton coach James Burkley said. “Have to tip your hat to (University High) … but RJ stepped up and had another one of those nights that we needed.”
Dantez Young was the only other Middleton player to score in double figures, netting 10 points. The first of his two second-half dunks made it 46-40 entering the fourth quarter.
TASTE OF SUCCESS
Cole went 8-for-11 from the floor to close his sophomore year, scoring 23 points, and junior A.J. Murphy added 12. Both players grabbed seven rebounds.
“They just expect that out of themselves,” Rice said. “They’re great to coach because you don’t have to motivate them.”
Finney, the Bucs’ only senior to score Friday, shot 3-for-3 to close his high school career with six points and four rebounds.
“We call him Dennis Rodman because he’s just a rebounding machine,” Rice said.
“For a 6-foot post to average over 11 rebounds a game in our conference is quite an accomplishment. He’s guarded a 7-footer, two 6-10 guys, and he’s outrebounded every one of them. And he’s one of the nicest kids I’ve ever met in my life.”
Middleton faces Hampton for the state championship Saturday at 5 p.m.