By: Eric Thorne
It’s something that Manual confidently held together while Sacred Heart struggled to keep theirs and it cost the Valkyries as Manual pulled a stunning 55-52 upset in the Seventh Region Championship on Saturday at Valley High School.
“Oh we played with so much poise and composure today and probably more than we have in a long time,” Manual coach Jeff Sparks said. “And defensively what a huge, huge effort for us.”
The Lady Crimsons had not been able to defeat Sacred Heart in their past four meetings dating back to the start of last season. That included a lopsided 77-30 loss in the Louisville Invitational Tournament on January 27.
That game was one Sparks dismissed.
“That game we caught Sacred Heart playing great in the LIT, but we felt the game at their place was more representative of the two teams,” Sparks said. “Tonight both teams came ready to play and we knew it would be a fight to the end.”
Manual opened the game with a hot 6-0 start only to see Sacred Heart rally right back behind Kiki Samsel’s 3-pointer, put back and layup for a 7-6 lead. The Valkyries led 13-12 after one quarter, and Manual tied it 13-13 on a foul shot by Aniah Griffin.
Sacred Heart would not relinquish the lead again until 4:41 left in the game when Jaelin Johnson hit a 3-pointer for a 42-41 lead to complete a 19-9 run.
“We had to bring it tonight and we did,” Sparks said. “We wanted to pick our spots and we’re good in the open floor which is our strength. We were able to use it when we could, and then be patient and execute.”
The Valkyries built a 24-13 advantage in the second quarter as Manual went cold for almost three minutes. Johnson’s 3 pointer made it 26-23 only to see Grace Berger drop in consecutive baskets, include a nice baseline move with just 0:02 seconds left giving Sacred Heart a 30-23 halftime lead.
“We were playing well in the first half, but they really stepped it up in the second half and we didn’t and that was the difference,” Berger said. “This is so disappointing because we have nine seniors on this team, and should have handled things much better.”
However, the second half saw the better shooting move to the Manual side.
The Lady Crimsons hung close waiting to make a surge behind the outside shooting of Griffin and the inside play of Nila Blackford. Johnson’s layup cut the lead to 39-37 heading to the final quarter.
“We played well I thought in the first half, but in the second half couldn’t keep them off the boards very well and they hit some big foul shots as the game came down the stretch,” Sacred Heart coach Donna Moir said. “We also had some fast breaks where we threw the ball over heads and away. We never got the one basket to get us going again in the second half.”
Blackford had been held in check much of the first half by Sacred Heart sophomore Kristen Clemons, but the senior began to assert herself in the paint as Manual started to make a run.
“We’ve played then several times this year and she is tough inside, but I had to be strong and if she scored forget about it and be ready for the next play,” Clemons said. “I know if she got past me not to foul, but I think we had a good matchup against each other inside.”
Blackford gave her team its first lead on a three-point play, but Ashlee Harris answered with a 3-pointer for Sacred Heart.
Blackford would finish with 14 points and 14 rebounds, with 12 of those points coming in the second half as the senior hit 4 of 7 shots.
“She was huge in the second half, and we challenged them at halftime because we have a lot of effective weapons on this team,” Sparks said. “We got a balanced group with kids on the outside like Jaelin and Aniah and then Nila on the inside.”
The Valkyries shot 48-percent in the first half, but saw that cool to make just 7 of 21 in the second half.
Much of that was due in part to a very effective triangle-and-two defense the Manual employed to slow Berger and Samsel.
“We just didn’t handle that very well at all, and didn’t really react the way we should have,” said Berger. “They threw a lot of junk defense at us, but we knew it was coming. Just not very good execution on our part. I really don’t know what happened.”
“I just don’t think we moved the ball well or set ourselves up against that triangle-and-two,” Clemons. “That really just led to us not scoring much which isn’t our game.”
Manual took the lead for good with 2:10 to play when Griffin drove the lane for a layup out of a Manual timeout. The lead grew to 55-50 on foul shots from Johnson and Blackford.
However, the Valkyries would not go down easily.
Berger connected on pair of foul shots with 11.7 seconds left, and the Valkyries forced a turnover under their basket with 8.2 seconds left and Moir called a timeout.
Berger got the ball at the top of the key, but passed up taking a game tying 3-pointer, instead deciding to try and drive for a layup and a foul. Both would prove unsuccessful.
“Give credit to them they are a great team who probably played their best ball of the year tonight,” Berger said.
Moir said Berger taking the ball to the basket didn’t surprise her.
“That’s Grace’s game to drive to the basket and she thought she could get the basket and foul,” Moir said. “These girls all really taught me a lot this year, and have been tremendous to coach for four years.”
Berger, who will play next season at Indiana University, finished with 16 points, six rebounds and three assists.
“I’ve built so many great relationships with these girls and that will last me a lifetime, and that will be much more memorable than the wins and losses,” Berger said choking back tears. “They have been my best friends and we will stay friends together for a very long time.”
Clemons tallied a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds while also blocking five shots.
“Those nine seniors were great leaders who have shown me how hard to play, and they are awesome group that I’ve gotten to share the past two seasons with,” Clemons said.
Johnson dropped in 18 points to lead Manual while Griffin chipped in 14.
Manual will play Thursday in the opening round of the St. Elizabeth Healthcare/KHSAA Girls Sweet 16 Basketball Tournament at 1:30 p.m. at BB&T Arena in Highlands Heights, Ky against the winner of Scott County/Franklin County.
All Seventh Region Tournament Team – Kristen Clemons, Kiki Samsel (Sacred Heart); Jaela Johnson, Tyonne Howard, Jaela Johnson (Manual); Mikayla Kinnard (Eastern); Ciaja Harbison (Male); Ne’zja Elliott (Waggener); Jacqueline Raque (Assumption); Kiarah Carney (Ballard); Shamariah Stikes (Central).