In what was supposed to be a tight race for the Seventh Region title this season, the Sacred Heart Academy basketball team has shot to the lead out of the gate.
The Valkyries got impressive outings from the senior tandem of DaiJia Ruffin and Raven Merriweather and displayed a smothering defense in a 66-43 victory over visiting Manual on Friday.
Sacred Heart (9-3) — No. 9 in the state in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings — now owns blowout victories over two teams also expected to contend for the regional title in No. 12 Manual and No. 19 Eastern (77-49 on Dec. 17). The Valkyries will host No. 10 Ballard on Thursday.
Ruffin said her team’s strong start hasn’t been a surprise.
“I feel like we’re the best team in the state,” she said. “If we come out and play as a team … no one in the state can beat us.”
Ruffin, a Tennessee-Martin signee, posted game highs in points (23), rebounds (nine) and assists (four). Merriweather, a Bellarmine signee, added 20 points and three steals.
Manual (9-6), which has won three straight Seventh Region titles, got 18 points and six rebounds from freshman Tonysha Curry but committed 20 turnovers and shot just 30.4 percent. The Lady Crimsons played without senior guard Erika Hawkins, who is out for disciplinary reasons, according to first-year coach Jeff Sparks.
Sacred Heart shot 48.9 percent, including a 56.5 percent clip in the first half on its way to a 40-18 halftime lead.
“Our defense and containing the basketball is a little bit of a problem for us right now,” Sparks said. “We’re letting people get around us too easily, and they’re getting high-percentage shots as a result. … It’s still early, and we have a lot to learn from games like this. We’ll get better.”
Sacred Heart put it away early, forcing Manual into nine turnovers in the first quarter and putting together a 26-5 run for a 32-10 lead midway through the second quarter.
While Manual starters Krys McCune and Aricka Prentice both picked up two fouls in the first quarter, Sacred Heart was able to avoid the whistles.
“We tend to get in foul trouble and can’t press, but our press is really effective,” said Sacred Heart coach Donna Moir, who was honored before the game with a banner recognizing her 500th career victory on Wednesday. “I thought we got in some passing lanes and got some easy baskets. That’s probably the best first half we’ve played all year.”
Curry scored six straight points to pull Manual within 32-16 late in the first half, but that’s as close as it would get.
It was a satisfying victory for a Sacred Heart team that had lost five straight meetings against Manual, including a 62-60 overtime loss in last season’s regional semifinals.
Ruffin said she’s been motivated by that loss since it happened.
“We had lost to Manual five years in a row, so this was a big statement game for us,” Ruffin said. “We knew we had to come out and play to the best of our ability.”