If only the Smyrna and Riverdale girls had Herm Edwards as their coach. He surely would have pointed out to them that “you play to win the game.” (He might also have tossed in a sarcastic, “Hello?” Which would have been great.)
Instead, the coaches that those Tennessee high school teams did have pointed out to them that it would be better if each lost its game to the other. That led to a travesty of a contest, which led to the head referee complaining to both schools, which led to both teams getting disqualified from the playoffs altogether.
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The teams’ incentive to lose was getting placed on the other side of the playoff bracket from a regional powerhouse, thus improving the chances of making it into the state playoffs. In a story by The Tennessean, a Riverdale administrator told the organizing body (TSSAA) that the coach did not specifically spell out a plan to throw the game.
“He said he talked to them about bracketology,” [TSSAA executive director Bernard] Childress said. “He told them, ‘This is where we will be if we win, this is where we will be if we lose.’ “
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Whatever that coach, Cory Barrett, did say, it resulted in unusual actions by his players. And Smyrna’s coach, Shawn Middleton, was quick to take notice and launch a counter-non-offensive. From the referee’s account of the game:
“Both teams played to lose. Riverdale started off the game in a 2-3 zone, which is very odd for Riverdale who usually plays 32 minutes of man to man full court pressure. After a few minutes I think that the Smyrna coach realized what was going on and subbed his second team in. Riverdale followed suit and did the same. …
Riverdale pulled the ball out and just passed the ball around. The Smyrna coach … told his team to foul to Riverdale in a bonus situation. When Riverdale got in the one and one they intentionally missed the free throws. They probably missed 12-16 free throws intentionally. On the other side, Smyrna wouldn’t get the ball across the half court line to get a 10 second count or to make us call an over and back violation intentionally. One time a Riverdale girl looked at one of the officials and gave the official a 3 second signal wanting him to call three seconds on her. Smyrna stood in the lane as well to have us call 3 seconds on them.
In the 3rd qrt I finally called both coaches together when a Smyrna player was about to attempt a shot at the wrong basket (but there was a 10 second violation call before they attempted the shot) on purpose. That is when I called both coaches together and told them we are not going to make a travesty or mockery of the game. WE ARE NOT GOING TO START TRYING TO SHOOT AND SCORE FOR THE OTHER TEAM.”
With about four minutes to go and what he apparently realized was an insurmountable 30-25 Smyrna lead, Middleton put his starters back in the game, and they coasted to a 55-29 win against Riverdale’s backups. According to The Tennessean, Middleton subsequently expressed regret for the whole episode.
“The bottom line is as a coach you make decisions in the heat of the game,” he said. “No way would I do it again.”
But the damage was done. On Monday, both Smyrna and Riverdale were fined $1,500 and put on probation for the 2015-16 school year, in addition to the girls’ teams being booted from this year’s playoffs.
Principals from both schools pleaded with the TSSAA to suspend the coaches but let the girls continue to play. However, Childress, the TSSAA executive director, found that the players were complicit in the attempts to lose.
“The student athletes bought into it,” Childress said, via The Tennesseean. “They were the ones asking to call three seconds. They were the ones stepping back over (midcourt). They were the ones not attempting to shoot at the basket.” …
“It’s a total embarrassment,” [Riverdale principal Tom] Nolan said. “In my 35 years at Riverdale I’ve never had that happen. It sends a bad message to everyone. Bottom line is you play the game to win.”
Both coaches are expected to receive further punishment.