Reflections on the girls’ sweet 16

Sacred Heart deserves to be mentioned with the state’s best of all-time; Rupp can be right for the girls’ tournament

By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com

We at 110forChrist had a wonderful time at the Mingua Beef Jerky Girls’ Sweet 16 last week even if our stay was much abbreviated from what we had intended before the tournament. We are grateful to the Kentucky High School Athletic Association for recognizing the work we do as important and granting media credentials to the girls’ version of the greatest basketball tournament on earth!  And we are thankful for the messages and social media posts about our work. You cannot know how much we – my wife, Stephanie, and I – appreciate your kind words.

Our plan had been to work the Thursday and Friday night sessions then return on Saturday.  However, the snowstorm that hit Friday night played havoc with our schedules in a manner that we could not have envisioned. But we thoroughly enjoyed the two sessions we were blessed to work.

Here are some reflections on the first normal tournament since 2019. Let’s make that the first normal-as-it-could-be tournament since then. 

How good is Sacred Heart?

The Valkyries pretty much had their way in the tournament, winning all four games by double digit margins. Anderson County stayed with Sacred Heart longer than anyone, leading by one midway through the third quarter before Sacred Heart went on a 15-2 run to take control.  George Rogers Clark led the Valkyries 24-22 at halftime of their quarterfinal game but Sacred Heart netted the first 10 points of the third quarter and outscored the Cardinals 19-3 in the first 4:11 of the second half. 

Sacred Heart had double-digit leads before halftime of the semifinal game with Cooper and the championship match with Bullitt East.

That’s total domination. However, you only have to go back to 2019 to find another team that won all of its games by 10 points or more. Ryle turned the trick that year. The last team before that one was the great Marion County team that finished the season unbeaten in 2013.

Add to the fact that Sacred Heart captured the big trophy in 2021 and you have to say that the Valkyries should rank among Kentucky’s all-time best.

It’s very difficult to say where this year’s Sacred Heart teams stands among the all-time greats because the game has changed so dramatically over time. That’s especially true of the girls’ game which has grown exponentially since the KHSAA revived the state tournament in 1975.

When I think of the greatest teams, I think of how one dominated the era in which it played and this Sacred Heart team did just that, finishing 36-3. It lost two games to Top 10 Kentucky teams in overtime. It also lost to Rock Bridge of Columbia, Mo., a team that finished 26-2 after being upset in the MSHSAA Class 6A, District 7 final on March 2.

I have not been to all of the girls’ Sweet 16s over the years but have seen the great Laurel County teams of the late 1970s, Louisville Southern and Lisa Harrison in 1988 and that Marion County team we mentioned earlier. And I saw the last repeat champions, Mercer County, which pulled that feat off in 2017 and 2018.

In fact, since the girls’ Sweet 16 was revived, only four teams had repeated as champions before Sacred Heart did so this year.  For the record, the others were Laurel County (1977,1978,1979), Sacred Heart (2002, 2003, 2004), Lexington Catholic (2005, 2006) and Mercer County (2017, 2018). 

Suffice it to say, that’s elite company. We won’t attempt to rank the greatest teams in order, but there can be no doubt that Sacred Heart is in the group at the top.

Sacred Heart loses last year’s Sweet 16 MVP, Josie Gilvin, and forward Alex Wolff from the starting lineup but has Kentucky’s Gatorade Player of the Year ZaKiyah Johnson back along with big time point guard Triniti Ralston and Reagan Bender, who just finds ways to make big plays. Sacred Heart will be gunning for a third consecutive state title and making Coach Donna Moir the first in Kentucky history to do it twice. 

Surprises?

During the first round, much of the statewide media expressed surprise at Southwestern’s win over McCracken County and Cooper rolling past Pikeville. 

One of the great things about being around the Anderson County team over the last few years is that the Lady Bearcats have played some of the state’s best, including Southwestern and Cooper.  Anderson beat Southwestern, 55-41, on Feb. 8, a game that was closer than the score indicated. Southwestern had very strong guard play, which made its trip to the semifinals not much of a surprise. 

I saw Cooper in the Anderson Christmas Tournament. Even though Anderson whipped Cooper by 16 then, the Jaguars came back to beat Anderson on its home court, 50-45, late in the season. We saw a team with a lot of strong parts, well-coached and playing well together. The Jaguars then came out of the rugged Ninth Region.

So Cooper’s march to the semis, even with 23-9 record entering the tournament, was not a surprise to those who had seen them.

About the only surprise we encountered was the snow that hit Lexington during Friday night’s session.

Is Rupp the right place for the girls’ tournament?

I will admit that I was disappointed when the KHSAA moved the Girls’ Sweet 16 from Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green in 2015. I don’t know all the particulars and, really, that doesn’t matter now.  But after three years at Northern Kentucky University, in the Cincinnati suburb of Highland Heights, the decision was made to bring the Girls’ Sweet 16 to Lexington’s Rupp Arena in 2019.

At the time, I wondered if Rupp was actually too big, given the girls’ tournament crowds are always significantly less than the boys’ tournament. My fear was that Rupp, which seats over 20,000, would dwarf the crowds.

First, we understand the desire to make things equal and put the girls’ tournament in the same building that has housed the Boys’ Sweet 16 every year since 1995. And we have to give the KHSAA and Lexington a lot of credit for their work.  The upper level is curtained off for the girls’ tournament, making the arena appear somewhat smaller. Parking is adequate and Lexington is centrally located for most of the state.

However, over the last couple of years, I have often heard sentiments to return to WKU’s Diddle Arena. Crowds just seem to be more intimate there in the smaller arena. But Rupp Arena is proving to be a fine host as well.

The best crowds of this year’s tournament featured Meade County. Rupp really did become a Green Wave when the Third Region champs played. Friday afternoon drew 6,790 fans, the best ever at Rupp and one of the largest Girls’ Sweet 16 crowds ever. The next best crowd was Wednesday afternoon, again when Meade County played, drawing 5,028. Next was Thursday night, when Anderson County brought a large crowd, at 4,465.  The championship game between Sacred Heart and Bullitt East drew 4,460.

The championship numbers are not significantly different than most of the championship games at Diddle – except for when nearby Franklin-Simpson (2008) and Allen County-Scottsville (2015), as well as the Marion County juggernaut (2013) were playing – but slightly better than the games at NKU. 

COVID-19 concerns canceled the tournament after five games in 2020 and the 2021 Sweet 16 was played under such COVID precautions that it would not be fair to make much of that one. And it would also be save to assume that some lingering hesitancy to get back out because of COVID concerns probably kept some people away again in 2022. 

Reportedly, the KHSAA is in negotiations with Lexington for a new contract. If an agreement can be reached, Rupp can be a fine host.

How good will Anderson County be in 2023?

That’s a question I have been asked numerous times during the just completed girls’ basketball season. It’s legitimate to speculate given that Anderson loses its top three scorers  – Miss Basketball finalist and University of Kentucky signee Amiya Jenkins, Jacie Chesser and Campbellsville University commit Paige Serafini – and had little offensive production from its bench this year.

Anderson has won three consecutive Eighth Region titles and seven straight 30th District crowns. Don’t be surprised if the Lady Bearcats are in the thick of things again in 2023. The two remaining starters, Lainey Johnson and Jenna Satterly, will be called upon to carry the load and Jenna Beasley has shown she can be a solid defender. Someone will have to step into those other spots, but the with the culture and expectations that Anderson coach Clay Birdwhistell has built, it would be surprising if Anderson is not better than many expect.

That’s not saying the Lady Bearcats will be anywhere as good as they have been the last three years. You just can’t replace what will be graduating. But the other side of the coin is that most of the other top teams in the Eighth Region suffer some big graduation losses too.  Because of that, I believe that 2023 will be the most wide open shoot out for the Eighth Region crown in years with as many as five or six teams – maybe more – having legitimate shots at the regional championship. 

See you at Rupp this week

We will be returning to Rupp Arena for some of the sessions of the Boys’ Sweet 16. Like the girls’ tourney, we will not be able to make all of it but look forward to seeing the best in the state. We hope to see you there. 

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