“We just went cold.”

That was how Burchfield coach Kevin Morrow described Saturday’s 54-46 loss to Mary Hughes in the Class A East Tennessee championship game.

He was right. Burchfield went cold. From the free throw line and from the paint. The Rams missed a bunch of foul shots and several put-back attempts from point-blank range as they attempted to close out the two-time defending champion. That, more than anything else, must be acknowledged as a storyline in Saturday’s championship game. After falling behind by four points as Mary Hughes arrested the momentum in the fourth quarter, Burchfield battled back to tie the game. That was a reset. At that point, nothing else from earlier in the game mattered. It was a new game, one that was there for the taking. And Burchfield couldn’t take it.

That’s important. In sports, it’s too easy to blame uncontrollable factors — usually, the officiating — in losses. It’s a cheap way out. Rarely does officiating change the outcome of a game, even when officials err. Ultimately, you have to accept responsibility instead of attempting to assign blame. Every single game.

But Morrow, like most, couldn’t help but wonder. “I do think,” he said, “if Trey hadn’t picked up his fourth foul, we’d have won by 20.”

He was careful how he said it. He didn’t blame the guys blowing the whistles. Morrow is less apt to criticize referees than just about any other basketball coach you’ll ever see, maybe because he moonlights as one when he isn’t pacing the sideline as a coach.

He didn’t have to say it. I’ll say it for him.

Morrow was referring to his son, and his star point guard, Trey Morrow. The MVP of the Scott County and Area II tournaments, the younger Morrow appeared poised to add a Class A sectional MVP plaque to his showcase. And then he was tagged with a fourth foul in the second quarter of Saturday’s game, and everything changed.

Morrow probably earned a couple of the first three fouls that were whistled against him, even if a couple of them could’ve gone either way.

But then came the fourth foul call, and it was truly terrible. Morrow was defending on the right wing. As a Mary Hughes guard pulled up, Morrow turned away from the play, intentionally avoiding his fourth foul. The Hughes guard jumped sideways into the small of Morrow’s back, initiating contact. Morrow was whistled for the foul. The shooter was awarded three free throws, while Morrow went to the bench.

At that point, Burchfield was up 15 points and completely dominating the game. Mary Hughes, which has controlled East Tennessee middle school basketball the past three years, was clearly stunned. It didn’t have an answer for Burchfield.

Without Morrow, though, things began to tilt. By the time he returned to the game a couple of minutes into the third quarter, the lead had shrunk to just three.

Unfortunately, Saturday’s turn of events wasn’t unique to Saturday’s game. It wasn’t even unique to Burchfield. Mary Hughes absorbed its fair share of questionable calls, as well. And officials’ miscues have become a common theme in middle school basketball. Officiating at that level leaves plenty to be desired — not because the fellows in stripes aren’t doing their best, but because TSSAA does not provide formal training for middle school officials. Officiating at that level is considered on-the-job training for later officiating high school games. And the results show themselves over and over in games played by just about every middle school. Just ask Oneida. Or Huntsville. Or Robbins.

At a junior varsity play day in Coalfield earlier in the season, Yellow Jackets coach Ted McKinney was asked to help a new official on the court as he attempted to make calls. The official, brand new to the game, was clearly out of his element, unaccustomed to the fast pace (and it doesn’t matter how many games you’ve watched from the bleachers or even how many you’ve coached from the sideline…stepping onto the court with a whistle makes the game much faster). That JV game was his training. His first assignment, coaches said, was to have been a varsity game being played at Fairview two days later.

That’s a problem. When I took to Twitter recently to mention the common occurrence of questionable officiating at the middle school level, several middle school coaches — both inside and outside the local area — messaged me with stories of their own experiences. It’s an elephant in the room: a problem, but most coaches either have too much respect for the job these men and women are trying to do or they don’t want to create a stir, so it often goes unmentioned.

But as long as TSSAA — or, perhaps more accurately, TMSAA — is making money off our middle schools’ athletics programs, those programs deserve to be assigned officials that are just as well-trained as officials at the high school level. To assign poorly-trained officials to the games is unfair…both to the officials and to the coaches and student-athletes.

And this shortcoming is magnified in championship settings like Saturday’s. For starters, why not have three officials on the court instead of just two? And why not provide adequate training for them, instead of using those middle school games as their training? Middle school games may be more poorly attended and may mean less than high school games, but the players and coaches are putting in the same amount of work as their high school counterparts. Well-trained officials shouldn’t be too much to ask for.

It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re officiating. Believe me, I know. I’ve volunteered as a referee at junior varsity games and scrimmages. It’s not an easy job, and I’m terrible at it. It would take a lot of training to make me a competent referee, and human error is always going to be part of the equation.

But back to Saturday’s game in Sevierville. A foul call like the fourth on Morrow is so egregiously bad that it’s hard to chalk it up to human error. It’s hard to judge it as anything other than inexperience and a complete lack of knowledge of what constitutes a foul. And that’s a shame. When an MVP-type player is sidelined with a fourth foul less than 10 minutes into a championship game on Tennessee middle school basketball’s biggest stage because TSSAA is not providing its officials with proper training, it’s beyond unfortunate. It’s inexcusable.

That doesn’t mean officiating changed the outcome of Saturday’s championship game. Morrow said it: “We just went cold.” But you can’t help but wonder…if not for a bizarre second quarter sequence of whistles that influenced the game by turning it on its nose and flipping the momentum, might things have been different?

If we’re being brutally honest, it seems easy to assume that Mary Hughes would’ve been unable to find a way to stop Burchfield’s domination and flip the momentum. That’s unfortunate. But maybe TSSAA can use it — and many other examples from games just like that — as a learning experience to improve things going forward.

From the Pressbox is a weekly sports column written by Independent Herald editor Ben Garrett.