Moments after the Sacred Heart girls’ basketball team defeated Ballard on Saturday night to win its first Seventh Region championship since 2004, the Valkyries’ two senior stars, DaiJia Ruffin and Raven Merriweather, shed tears and gave each a long embrace on the bench.
It was an emotional moment and a culmination of years of hard work for two teammates who had learned to rely on each other and work as one to accomplish their common goal of reaching the KHSAA girls’ Sweet 16.
“It was like, ‘We finally did it,’ ” Merriweather said. “All the talk and all the wishing, we finally did it. It hit us at that moment, and it was a good moment.”
Ruffin and Merriweather will lead the Valkyries into the Sweet 16 against top-ranked Elizabethtown at 7:30 p.m. EDT Thursday at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, and the Valkyries are confident because they have never been playing better together than now.
“We’ve known it was going to come down to this since we’ve been playing at Sacred Heart,” Ruffin said of herself and Merriweather. “For us to do what we need to do, we need each other. We’ve engrained that in our minds. We’re doing a good job of it.”
Sacred Heart (27-7) is making its first appearance since winning consecutive titles from 2002 to ’04, and it’s been a long wait for a program that sets high standards under Donna Moir, who is in her 23rd year as coach.
Ruffin, a Miss Basketball finalist who has signed with Tennessee-Martin, leads the Valkyries in scoring (18.0 points per game) and rebounding (9.5) while shooting 57.5 percent from the floor. She’s a physical player who is hard to stop around the goal and in transition.
Merriweather, who signed with Bellarmine, isn’t far behind at 16.6 and 6.5, and is a scoring threat around the basket, midrange and beyond the 3-point arc.
“The most important thing we had to do was develop our chemistry between DaiJia and Raven and Gretchen (Samsel),” Moir said. “… I think (Ruffin and Merriweather) realized that they needed each other. … When they were hugging on the bench, that showed how far we’ve come. They’ve never been enemies, but they each want to score and each want to do their best. But they’ve always put the team first.”
Merriweather, who has returned strong after a season-ending knee injury as a junior, and Ruffin said they have built a good chemistry and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They attended Johnson Middle School together and became teammates at Sacred Heart three years ago, after Ruffin transferred from Butler.
They said it took awhile for the Valkyries to build chemistry as the two strong-minded players learned to share leadership duties.
“I mean, you have two scorers on the team, so you have to even out the scoring,” Merriweather said. “This year, we both just put it in our head, ‘We just need to work together, and if we don’t work together the team doesn’t work together.’ “
Things started really coming together for the Valkyries at the Louisville Invitational Tournament, where they beat LaRue County and then-No. 1 Anderson County on consecutive days before falling to Butler 50-49 in the title game.
Ruffin had 28 points against Anderson County, Merriweather 17.
“The LIT, we figured it out,” Ruffin said. “We beat the No. 1 team in the state, and we were like, ‘This could work if I use you and you use me.’ “
Samsel, the Valkyries’ third-leading scorer, said the team has bonded on and off the court, and is now “just one big family.”
She credited Ruffin, Merriweather and Vanessa Baisas for providing good leadership.
“They always pat you on the back (after a mistake) and say, ‘You can do it next time, and don’t let it bring you down,” Samsel said.
Moir didn’t expect that it would take 10 years to get back to the state tournament after the three-peat of 2002-04, when Crystal Kelly and Carly Ormerod led the Valkyries to the top.
She said assistant coach Betsy Cowan, who rejoined the staff this year, has made a big contribution from the bench, and Moir said the development of role players around Ruffin and Mayweather has been key.
“I wouldn’t trade my players for anybody,” Moir said. “I’d take DaiJia for Miss Basketball in a heartbeat. … When the game is on, you want DaiJia and Raven and Gretchen. They set the tone for everyone else.”