BOWLING GREEN, Ky.
Tim Mudd didn’t want the role of Sweet 16 favorite for his Elizabethtown girls’ basketball team, but after Thursday’s performance, it appears he’s going to have to live with it.
The Panthers shot a blistering 60 percent in the first half, placed all five starters in double figures and backed up their No. 1 spot in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings with a 76-61 victory over No. 7 Sacred Heart in the first round of the Houchens Industries/KHSAA Sweet 16 at E.A. Diddle Arena.
“I know somebody has to be the favorite,” Mudd said, “and we’ll take on that role.”
Reauna Cleaver had 20 points and four steals and Erin Boley added 19 points and 11 rebounds as E’town (30-4) advanced to face Anderson County in Friday’s 9 p.m. EDT quarterfinal.
Boley, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, was named the Gatorade Kentucky Player of the Year on Thursday morning and had coaches from Connecticut, Tennessee and Vanderbilt watching her play against Sacred Heart.
“I guess you could say it’s a pretty good day,” she said. “It was an exciting morning, but I knew what our goal was and that was to win this game tonight. We all had to be focused.”
DaiJia Ruffin had 18 points and 10 rebounds and Raven Merriweather 16 points for Sacred Heart (27-8), which was in the Sweet 16 for the first time since winning three straight titles from 2002-04.
The Valkyries rallied to make it a game in the third quarter but couldn’t overcome E’town’s 56.3 percent overall shooting and its height advantage. With the 6-2 Cleaver and 6-1 Boley leading the way, the Panthers won the boards 33-23.
“I knew they were going to be tough to match up with just because both of them are 6 feet and we don’t have anyone 6 feet on our team,” Ruffin said.
The Panthers hit their first seven shots and built a 22-12 lead after one quarter. Boley scored 13 in the period.
“We knew we needed to limit Boley’s touches, and she came out on fire,” Valkyries coach Donna Moir said. “I was hoping she’d miss a couple … but like the player she’s built up to be, she made the shots when she had to right off the bat.”
E’town led 37-24 at halftime, but Sacred Heart slowly chipped away in the third quarter and twice cut the lead to three. Merriweather’s jumper with 1:32 left cut it to 48-45, but Boley answered with a 3-pointer and Cleaver hit a free throw to make it 52-45 entering the fourth quarter.
Merriweather’s layup made it 56-52 with 6:03 left, but the Valkyries got no closer.
“I thought we had E’town on their heels a little bit, and then we just didn’t make many stops toward the end,” Moir said. “Credit Tim Mudd. I thought he did a good job in the fourth quarter. We needed a couple more shots to go in.”
Mudd called the first half one of his team’s best all season but also was pleased with the way his young players answered Sacred Heart’s surge in the second half. The Panthers have just one senior on their roster.
“I was really impressed with my kids’ composure,” Mudd said. “We’re a relatively young group, and I thought in the second half we showed excellent composure and were able to withstand their run and make a few runs ourselves to put the game away.”