Yes, this did happen and the evidence is embarrassingly public - all over the internet making its way on to national television and major national newspapers. If you search the web (Riverdale-Smyrna girls basketball video), you can see "air-balled" foul shots and deliberate attempts to turn the ball over via "hand away's" and "over and back" violations and that was just some of it according to eye witnesses.
Unfortunately, this has been the most major story regarding high school girls basketball this week. The two teams involved were Murfreesboro (Tennessee) Riverdale High School and district rival Smyrna High School, both attempting to throw this district playoff game (played on February 21 at Riverdale) for perceived better placement in the regional tournament (next post-season step).
For the record, Smyrna won 55-29 after having lost twice to Riverdale earlier this season. Despite the score, both sides tried to lose but Smyrna put their starters back into the game when they ahead by a few points in the fourth quarter. Seeing that Riverdale was refusing to score, Smyrna pulled away late.
The goal was of this mischief was to avoid nationally ranked power Murfreesboro Blackman (#4 in the Swish Appeal Prep Poll of Polls [see link]) until the finals of the regional tournament. Both regional finalists advance while a meeting with Blackman in the regional semi-final (which would have been the winner's [third place] fate) would have been in an elimination game circumstance. As it was, both Riverdale (which won a share of the mythical national high school championship in 2013) and Smyrna were thrown out of this year's playoffs for their attempts to lose this district third place game.
So sad on many levels
The lead official even warned both teams to stop these overt efforts which were bringing boos from the crowd. Instead the warning was ignored. Within a few days, heavy punishment (post-season tournament disqualification, fines and one-year coaching suspensions for the head coaches) was meted out.
There is a lot of blame to go around. Start with our American professional sports society which serves as a role model for a substantial portion of our country's adults and youth. In some cases, pro teams have been known to subtly tank games to possibly improve draft position. Also, in American society, finishing first has become an overriding obsession as compared to doing things the right way ethically.
Next, we can blame the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) for having the set up which might tempt these actions when this flaw could have been addressed years ago. However, it would have cost them some money for post-season games no longer played.
Finally, the coaches and players (who so willingly played their roles in this farce) have to shoulder their share of the blame.
TSSAA's flawed system
People in Tennessee have for years seen this flaw in the basketball playoff system where a third place game loss in the district playoffs could bring greater benefit than winning in regard to placement in the subsequent regional playoffs. Along with this over the years came whispers of team 'X" not playing quite up to speed in this game and losing perhaps with subtle but unproven intent. Rather than correct this flaw, the governing state body (TSSAA) chose not to address it. Will they now?
The solution is simple!
Play the 3rd/4th place district game but have the loser eliminated. If that had been the case in the game being discussed here, there would be no need to be writing this!
Next, in the regional playoffs between the two adjoining districts have the district champions receive a bye (currently each team plays the fourth place team from the opposite district) and have the second and third place teams cross over and play as currently is the practice. Winners then play off versus the teams receiving the bye essentially as is the current practice with these two regional finalists (who would play as now to determine the regional champion) advancing to the next "sub-state" level (from which eight winners go on to the state tournament).
The incentive to lose in the district is thus eliminated because this third place game loser would be out of the tournament. Please note Georgia has a similar system but sends all four qualifiers into four separate quarters of the state so teams from the same district would not meet until later in the playoffs.
If Tennessee prefers not to have such travel as Georgia does, it needs to look to make this change to avoid even subtle attempts (as has probably been the case in the past) not to win as was the case here in embarrassingly overt, deliberate fashion, which really ended in a loss for all parties involved.