Anderson County’s Tiffani Riley and teammates chase the state’s biggest prize but she made a life-changing decision during stellar season
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. — The young eighth-grader had not played a varsity minute but she was making quite an impression in a pre-season practice.
It was the fall of 2016 and I was working on the high school basketball preview for The Anderson News. The Anderson County girls’ basketball team was supposed to be pretty good, but no one really knew just how good. The Lady Bearcats would eventually put together a 25-8 season, win the 30th District championship and advance to the Eighth Region semifinals that year.
In addition, the foundation of what would turn into a statewide powerhouse several years later was being put in place.
And part of that foundation was that tall and talented girl running the court with her dark hair flowing behind. Anderson coach Clay Birdwhistell, then in his third year at the helm, told me the young lady, Tiffani Riley, “could really be special before it is all said and done. If she hits her ceiling, she is going to surprise a lot of people.”
Special might be an understatement.
Since that day, the Lady Bearcat teams have put together a 136-28 record, won five district crowns — extending Anderson’s dominance to 12 titles in 13 seasons — and two regional championships.
And when the Migua Beef Jerky Girls’ Sweet 16 gets underway April 7, Anderson will be the highest-ranked team left standing and one of the favorites to bring home the big trophy.
A major cog in the Lady Bearcat success has undoubtedly been Riley, who became a fixture in the starting lineup as a sophomore and has earned a slew of hoops accolades that most high schoolers only dream about: All-District three times, two-time All-Region tournament with a 2020 MVP to go with it and a regular-season All-Region selection in this, her senior year.
And, in Hollywood-esque fashion, Riley reached exactly 1,000 points for her career in the Lady Bearcats’ 53-23 romp past district rival Spencer County in the final.
“It’s still, like, unreal for me,” Riley said before Thursday’s practice. “It’s something you never really expect. It’s like a dream.”
There can be little doubt what Riley brings to the floor. She knows only one speed at which to play — full — and standing nearly 6-feet tall while possessing outstanding athleticism, wreaks havoc in the Anderson defense, whether it be full- or half-court. And, as four-digit career scoring suggests, Riley can find the net. When her three-point shots swish through the nets, the resulting crowd roar energizes the Lady Bearcats during one of those blood-letting runs to seal another win.
“We know we are going to get the best from every team we play,” Riley says. “There’s really no extra pressure (on being a favorite to win the state). We feel like if we play who we are and to the best of our ability. there’s no team that can beat us.
During Anderson’s run to the Sweet 16, Riley has averaged 9.2 points while hitting 48 percent of her shots from the field. When she steps behind the arc, Riley has sunk 42.7 percent of her attempts.
She’s also amassed 532 rebounds, 299 steals and 177 blocked shots over five years.
They are the kind of statistics that caught the eyes of many college coaches and earned an opportunity to play at Asbury University where Riley plans to study for a career as a math teacher.
And Riley might have not yet reached her basketball ceiling. However, she says, “Who I am now is not what I was then.”
That is true both on and off the hardwood.
Prior to the regional championship game, Riley was honored by the Eighth Region Officials’ Association as the recipient of the Jim “Cornbread” Stethen Scholarship. The award is based on grade point average and career plans. Nominees are also asked to write an essay describing what sportsmanship means to them.
Riley found out Monday, before the Lady Bearcats played Walton-Verona in the regional semifinal game, that she had been selected for the award, named for the late Eighth Region official who called games for over 60 years. “I am excited about this because it is really a great honor,” she says.
In addition, earlier in the school year, Riley was selected as Miss Anderson by the high school faculty. The award is given to a senior based on academics, citizenship and several other factors.
But Tiffani’s statement “Who I am now is not what I was then” took on a whole new meaning recently.
You see, her high school basketball career will end sometime this week. While she and her teammates have every intention of walking off the Rupp Arena floor Saturday night with the state championship trophy, anything can happen. But whatever does happen, she and two other Anderson seniors, Sophie Smith and Rachel Satterly, won’t be suiting up for the Lady Bearcats after this week. It’s temporary.
Unlike most high school athletes, Riley will have the opportunity to play basketball in college. Even if she plays a full four-year career, it’s temporary.
“My faith is the most important thing in my life and it should be in everybody’s life,” Riley says. “It says in the Bible that God should always be first and the main person in your life.”
During the season, Riley and Anderson assistant coach Keith Currens started having discussions about basketball and life itself. Currens invited Riley to take part at his church, Lawrenceburg’s First Baptist. She made the decision to accept Christ and be baptized during the season.
“When I see a young person accept Christ, it always makes me excited to see how Christ will use them and how He will work through them,” says Currens, who has also coached at Georgetown College. “I think sometimes as believers, we wait for people to approach us or come to our church before we share the good news with them. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) tells us to ‘Go into the world’ and that is what I try to do. Now it’s Tiffani’s time to GO!”
Currens, whose daughter, Kaci, played on two Anderson state tournament teams, has watched Tiffani Riley grow as a basketball player and a person. “I was happy for a student-athlete from Anderson County to get the Cornbread Award and I don’t think they could have chosen a more deserving person,” he says. “I think Cornbread would approve.”
And, Currens says, she exhibits a basic trait of Christianity as part of one of Kentucky’s best girls’ basketball teams. “When I see how Tiffani cares for her teammates, especially the younger girls, it shows the love she has in her heart for others and that is something the Lord will use.”
And the Lord will undoubtedly use that love for a prize greater than the one Tiffani Riley and her teammates will be shooting for this week.
“Who I am now is not what I was then.”