The stage was set last February at Bellarmine’s Knights Hall.
Double overtime. Two-point-four seconds on the clock. Sacred Heart trailed Assumption 59-57 in a Seventh Region basketball semifinal and had one last chance to send the game into a third OT.
Taking the ball out under the Rockets’ basket, Sacred Heart’s Raven Merriweather heaved a long pass to DaiJia Ruffin.
Ruffin collected the ball near the top of the key, dribbled toward the basket, and with a Rocket defender bearing down, attempted a layup at full speed.
After bouncing hard against the backboard, the ball caromed off the rim – and out.
Ruffin, then a sophomore, finished with a game-high 21 points, but her failure to convert at crunch time was devastating.
“It was like: ‘How could I miss that layup?’ ” Ruffin said. “I just made my team lose and we had so many seniors on that team who wanted to win. I was crushed.”
The short-range misfire brought an end to the 2011-12 season for Sacred Heart, but as Assumption players and fans celebrated, Ruffin resolved to bounce back.
Through the first three weeks of this season, the 5-foot-9 guard/forward has done just that.
Ruffin is shooting 78 percent from the field and has averaged 19.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists a game for the Valkyries, who entered this week with a perfect 5-0 record.
“She’s got great hands, quick feet and she’s been playing basketball for a long time and it shows,” said Sacred Heart coach Donna Moir, a 22-year veteran.
Deceptive quickness has allowed Ruffin to thrive in Moir’s five-guard system of up-tempo offense and full-court defense.
“(My speed) is what turns a lot of people’s heads when I play,” said Ruffin, who also averages 2.6 steals and 1.6 blocks per game.
In the season-opener against Franklin County, Ruffin caught fire for 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting from the field, and then went off for 23 points and 16 rebounds in a 64-54 win over Highlands a week later.
Facing Jeffersonville (Ind.) on Dec. 6, Ruffin was 10 of 13 from the field, charting 23 points and 16 rebounds en route to a 64-43 victory.
According to her mother, Ruffin’s passion for the game sprouted early.
“I asked her what she wanted for her (first) birthday and she said a basketball rim,” recalled Danielle Ruffin, who was a standout center at J’town and later played at Kentucky State.
“(At) about (age) seven we knew that this is what she was here to do,” said Danielle Ruffin.
The younger Ruffin played up on Butler High School’s varsity team beginning in sixth grade and was named to the Sixth Region All-Tournament team in 2009 as a seventh-grader.
After transferring from Butler following her freshman year, Ruffin averaged 12.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season.
In addition to her hoops prowess, Ruffin is quickly becoming one of the state’s top shot putters after taking up the event last year. She finished fifth at the 2012 state track and field meet with a throw of 36 feet, 1.25 inches.
Ruffin, a B-student who favors math and history, said she has received interest from Indiana, Louisville, Tennessee-Martin and Vanderbilt.
Her dream school, however, is North Carolina.
“I haven’t heard anything from North Carolina, but I’m still waiting,” she said with a laugh.
Sacred Heart was ranked No. 15 in The Lexington Herald-Leader’s preseason survey of coaches and is joined in a loaded Seventh Region by defending state champion Manual (No. 2), Assumption (No. 6), Ballard (No. 11) and Christian Academy (No. 19).
“It’s going to be a battle when it comes down to it at the end,” said Moir, who led the Valkyries to consecutive Sweet 16 titles in 2002, ’03 and ’04. Sacred Heart also won in 1976 under Bunny Daugherty.
Along with Ruffin, Sacred Heart features one of the state’s top point guards in junior Raven Merriweather (15.4 ppg., 7 rpg., 3.2 apg.). Senior Kristin Matula, a Michigan State field hockey commit, averages 8.6 points per game and sophomore Ashley Johnson (8.4 ppg.) provides strong support as well.
This Saturday, the group will get its first opportunity to make some noise in the region when it travels to Ballard for a 2:30 p.m. tip. The Bruins also entered the week undefeated at 4-0.
“We just want to come out and prove people wrong and show them that we are good,” said Ruffin. “We want to be the best in our region and go to state.”
And what if the season again hinged on a late shot in a post-season game?
“It would be me shooting and it would be me hitting,” Ruffin said.
Contact columnist Chris Cahill at email@example.com.