On Saturday, the girls’ basketball teams from Riverdale and Smyrna high schools in Tennessee met in the District 7-AAA consolation game, which was a postseason game, at least nominally. But because of the state’s high school playoff structure — and the looming presence of one of the nation’s best teams — both squads employed an unusual and, two days later, much-condemned game plan.
No matter the result, both teams were ensured of advancement into the Tennessee region playoffs. But here’s where the unseemly gamesmanship came into play: The winner of the Riverdale-Smyrna game would be placed into the same side of the region bracket as a powerhouse team called Blackman, setting up a possible matchup in the region semifinals. The loser would be placed on the opposite side of the bracket as Blackman and thus couldn’t square off with the Lady Blaze until the region final. In Tennessee, teams that play in the state’s eight region finals receive automatic bids into the 16-team sectional tournament.
Blackman is regarded as the best team in the state of Tennessee and one of the best squads in the country. The Lady Blaze are ranked No. 3 nationally in MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25 and No. 4 in MaxPreps’ national computer rankings, so it’s understandable that neither Riverdale nor Smyrna wanted to see their seasons end with a likely region semifinal loss to Blackman.
What defies belief is the way both teams went about trying to avoid such a matchup.
It was tanking that would make even the NBA’s most lottery-hungry teams blush. Smyrna Coach Shawn Middleton pulled his starters early in the game, and Riverdale Coach Cory Barrett followed suit. There was slow play, intentionally missed free throws and balls thrown away on purpose.
And it went beyond the players simply following orders, as they were active participants in all of it. The referee said that one Riverdale player gave him the three-second signal, demanding that she be called for the violation, and that one Smyrna player purposely tried to score in the wrong basket, only to be thwarted when she was whistled for a 10-second violation.
According to the Tennesseean, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association was told by a Riverdale official that Barrett did not instruct his players to lose. In so many words, anyway.
“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.’ ”
On Monday, the TSSAA banned both teams from the postseason, and Riverdale Principal Tom Nolan has suspended Barrett for the first two games of next season. Smyrna Principal Rick Powell told the Tennessean that he has not decided on an additional punishment for Middleton.
“I’m just numb. I don’t have a lot to say,” he said Monday. “I just want to say if anyone should be punished, it should be the coaches.”