Last season, Sacred Heart walked off the Rupp Arena floor the victim of a stunning upset in the girls’ state tournament just moments before the event’s suspension due to the pandemic was announced.
In the wings, Marshall County, who was set to play the next game of that 2020 session, had to pack up and travel 242.1 miles back home to Benton without its moment on high school basketball’s biggest stage.
On Saturday, those girls’ basketball programs, two of the most tradition-rich in the state, staged the closest, most exciting state title game in a decade as Sacred Heart captured the 2021 Mingua Beef Jerky/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet 16 championship with a 49-47 win decided in the tilt’s final seconds.
Sacred Heart, one of Louisville’s four all-girls Catholic high schools, won its fifth state title, tied with Butler, Ashland Blazer and now-defunct Laurel County for the most ever.
Coach Donna Moir also got her 701st career victory, and, perhaps, none sweeter. Until this season, Moir’s teams hadn’t tasted Sweet 16 victory since their 2004 title.
“Every day we’d sing the national anthem in our gym, and I’d look at those banners and I’d think, ‘Oh my God, 2004 was so long ago,’ and ‘Am I ever going to get back?’” Moir said. “I just never thought that we’d be back here, because I’ve had some good teams and had a lot of bad luck. And this year, we stayed healthy and we had some good luck. … It’s just surreal to think that this has happened again.”
Valkyries defense shows its teeth
The Valkyries won by holding Marshall County scoreless over the last 2:57 of the game thanks to the harassing, disruptive defense of Sweet 16 most valuable player Josie Gilvin and her teammates.
Marshall’s last points came on Halle Langhi’s two free throws that staked her team to a 47-44 lead. Seconds later, however, Triniti Ralston drained three free throws after being fouled on a three-point shot to tie the game at 47 with 2:33 left.
From there, Gilvin got a blocked shot on one possession and a steal on Marshall’s next.
“They are a true team … all the players, and, obviously, we feed off Josie and Triniti,” Moir said. “You know, every game that we lost our coaches sat down and analyzed — and Triniti and Josie were in foul trouble. We really invented stuff in the last month and put in a matchup zone (defense). ... Because we knew we had to have our best players on the floor.”
A putback by Alexandra Wolff pushed the Valkyries to the lead, 49-47, with 55 seconds to go.
Then as Marshall worked diligently to try to create a tying basket, freshman Reagan Bender stepped in front of a Marshall County pass into the paint and stole the ball with 13 seconds left.
Marshall fouled on three consecutive inbounds plays to put Sacred Heart into a bonus foul shot scenario. A subsequent Marshall steal attempt was ruled out of bounds. Stunningly, Sacred Heart’s next inbounds pass sailed out of play.
Marshall County had possession, down two, with 10 seconds left and quickly fed the ball to its best three-point shooter, Jada Driver, in the right corner.
But Gilvin, the most tenacious defender among 16 teams of players this week, closed down on the Marshall shooter for her fifth block of the game.
“We were just trying to get the ball so we could score again,” Gilvin said, underselling the moment. “It feels amazing,” she added, “It feels the best when you have the best people next to you, always cheering you on.”
Controversy followed after Gilvin missed her free throw, giving Marshall the ball back with 1.3 seconds left. Cayson Conner crumpled to the floor as she and a Sacred Heart player went for the inbounds pass in front of the Marshall bench. The referees judged the contact was not a foul. With now just. 0.2 seconds left, Marshall had no chance for a tie.
“You probably don’t want to hear my thoughts on the final play because it would be inappropriate,” Marshall County Coach Aaron Beth said. “That is very frustrating as a coach when the kids play that hard and do what they’re supposed to and just because it’s one-point-whatever-seconds-left, they don’t make the call. But that’s not what cost us the basketball game.
“(Sacred Heart) had a lot of pressure. You have to give their defense credit. … Sometimes things don’t go your way. It just wasn’t our night tonight.”
The game had 10 ties and nine lead changes and neither team had more than a one- possession advantage after a Gilvin steal led to a Ralston three-pointer to cut Marshall’s edge to 33-31 with 4:18 left in the third quarter.
Gilvin finished the game with only four points, but had eight rebounds, five assists, five steals and the five blocks. Ralston led the Valkyries (25-7) in scoring with 18 points, including four three-pointers. Wolff added 10.
Langhi scored 19 points to lead Marshall (25-3) followed by Conner’s 16. Bench player Sophie Galloway grabbed 10 rebounds, the most of anyone in the game.
Win or lose, putting it in perspective
Marshall County dominated the 1st Region under Coach Howard Beth, Aaron Beth’s father, winning two state titles in three trips to the finals in the early 1980s and 19 region titles during the elder Beth’s 30-year career. Aaron Beth has now been to three Sweet 16s as a player and three as a coach, the last two with Marshall and one with Graves County.
“We got 25 wins and just three losses this year, so the majority of our year was very successful,” Beth said. “And I’m not going to say tonight wasn’t successful because I know that they gave me everything they could. … Win or lose, I’m just so proud to be their coach.”
Moir had dominant, nationally ranked teams when Sacred Heart won three consecutive state titles from 2002 to 2004. But this is only her fourth trip back to the Sweet 16 since those glory days. Visits in 2014, 2017 and 2020 each ended with first-round exits. Last year’s team had only lost two games before the tournament and had beaten its Sweet 16 opponent, South Laurel, by 24 points two months prior. South Laurel won the rematch by a single point.
But never mind that now.
“I can’t say enough about these kids,” Moir said. “I kind of laugh because I told them before we ever came down here, I said, ‘We’re either going to lose (in the) first round, or we’re going to win it all. I can’t be more proud of my team. … What a game they played and what a tournament we had.”
All-Sweet 16 Team
LynKaylah James, Bowling Green; Brooklynn Miles, Franklin County; Ella Thompson, Bethlehem; Aubrey Hill, Russell; Sophie Smith and Amiya Jenkins, Anderson County; Jarie Thomas and Sadie Wurth, Henderson County; Layne Pea. Cayson Conner and Halle Langhi, Marshall County; Triniti Ralston, Alexandra Wolff and Josie Gilvin (MVP), Sacred Heart.