Sixteen things to get you ready for Kentucky’s 2023 Girls’ Sweet 16 basketball tournament

The 2023 Mingua Beef Jerky Girls’ Sweet 16 begins Wednesday as teams from around the state will square off to see who will capture Kentucky high school basketball’s ultimate prize.

Here are 16 things to think about as the state tournament returns to Rupp Arena:

1. Sacred Heart’s pursuit of history

Sacred Heart, the all-girls Catholic academy from Louisville, returns as the two-time defending state champion and is going for the third three-peat in Girls’ Sweet 16 history.

This would be the second three-peat for the Valkyries, having also accomplished the feat under Coach Donna Moir from 2002 to 2004. The only other school to have won three Girls’ Sweet 16s in a row is now-defunct Laurel County, who did it from 1977 to 1979. Laurel was split into North Laurel and South Laurel in 1992.

Last season’s championship was Sacred Heart’s sixth overall, breaking a three-way tie for the most with Laurel County, Ashland Blazer and Butler.

Here’s the scary part: Sacred Heart has just one senior, point guard Triniti Ralston.

Sacred Heart ranks as the No. 1 team in the state and the No. 12 team in the nation. And it doesn’t appear to be fading anytime soon.

2. The Miss Basketball candidates

This year’s tournament features seven Miss Basketball candidates, who were their respective region’s players of the year as voted on by the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches.

Kensley Feltner of Lawrence County (29.3 points per game), a 5-foot-9 forward committed to Belmont who unofficially ranks as Kentucky girls’ high school basketball’s fourth all-time leading scorer with 4,175 points. She’s the fourth female player to top 4,000 points, a feat only two male players have accomplished. She also has more than 1,500 career rebounds.

Destiny Thomas of McCracken County (18.4 points), a 5-foot-10 forward committed to Murray State who returned from a knee injury suffered two seasons ago to lead the Mustangs to back-to-back 1st Region titles.

Meadow Tisdale of Bowling Green (13.3 points), a 5-foot-11 forward committed to Northern Kentucky who has been a fixture in the Purples’ lineup since eighth grade and a major part of four 4th Region championships.

Emma Filiatreau of Bethlehem (17.8 points), a 6-foot center who has committed to Oklahoma State as an equestrian athlete even though she’s also a remarkable basketball player.

Whitney Lind of Cooper (13.3 points), a 6-foot-2 forward who signed with Lehigh and helped lead the Jaguars to the state semifinals last season in the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance.

Brianna Byars of George Rogers Clark (14.5 points), 5-foot-11 forward signed with Cincinnati who has been part of four region champions in her five-year varsity career.

Emily Sizemore of North Laurel (16.8 points), a 5-7 guard who hasn’t announced her college plans.

Miss Basketball voting has already taken place and the winner will be revealed at the 12th annual Mr. and Miss Kentucky Basketball Awards Ceremony on March 19 at the Griffin Gate Marriott in Lexington.

3. Don’t forget the Titan

Unfortunately, Mercer County’s Timberlynn Yeast suffered a season-ending knee injury before the first game of her senior year.

A Buffalo signee who was also a state champion track athlete for the Titans, Yeast finished her career with more than 2,000 points and exactly 1,000 rebounds thanks to a senior night act of sportsmanship by 12th Region-rival Southwestern. In another show of respect, Yeast was named co-region player of the year and a Miss Basketball candidate despite missing the season.

Not many would have penciled in Mercer County for the Sweet 16 absent Yeast, but the Titans toppled Danville 63-59 in overtime for the 12th Region title. Younger sister Teigh Yeast, a freshman, is among Mercer’s leading scorers.

4. The next in line

There’s no shortage of future player of the year candidates in this year’s field from the class of 2024.

Sacred Heart’s Reagan Bender (14.8 points) and Angelina Pelayo (11.6) are two strong candidates for the Valkyries. McCracken County also has a dynamic duo with Claire Johnson (17.0 points) and Mikee Buchanan (12.8).

And don’t be surprised to see Frederick Douglass’ double-double machine Ayanna Darrington (12.7 points) in the mix along with Ashland Blazer’s Ella Sellers (16.7), Owensboro Catholic’s Hailee Johnson (12.9), Mercer County’s Anna Drakeford (16.7) and Knott County Central’s Kylie Gayheart (17.6).

5. The super sophomores

Sacred Heart’s ZaKiyah Johnson (22.3 points) and Mercy’s Leah Macy (24.5) rank among the top 25 sophomores in the nation, according to ESPNW’s HoopGurlz recruiting rankings. Johnson makes the list at No. 2 as a five-star recruit. Macy ranks at No. 17 as a four-star recruit.

Among Johnson’s college offers are South Carolina, UConn and Baylor. Macy’s college list includes Louisiana State, Tennessee and Ohio State.

Perhaps overshadowed but sure to draw their own college suitors are George Rogers Clark’s Ciara Byars (18.2 points), Brianna’s younger sister, along with Ashland Blazer’s Kenleigh Woods (18.8 points) and Frederick Douglass’ Niah Rhodes (17.9).

6. Helping promote girls’ athletics

This will be the second year of the Rise Up Sports Media Awards to be announced at Lexington’s downtown Hilton beginning at 4 p.m. Wednesday, the first day of the tournament.

Organized by photographer Tonia Witt, the awards recognize the achievements of female athletes on and off the court and in the classroom. Nominees were drawn from across the state.

Some of the awards are named for Kentucky women’s basketball players past and present. They include the Valerie Still Still I Rise Award, the Lea Wise Playmaker Award, the Jada Walker Hustle Award and the Cassidy Rowe Courage Award.

7. Built for the long haul

Sacred Heart isn’t the only team on a streak of state tourney appearances.

Bowling Green has made four straight Sweet 16s. It’s the third in a row for Bethlehem.

Among the back-to-backers are McCracken County, Cooper and George Rogers Clark — who has made state in six of the last seven years.

Henderson County, led by Coach Jeff Haile, has by far the most appearances among this year’s field with 19, including the last five. Earlier this season, Haile earned his milestone 800th career win. His 819 wins entering this week rank second on Kentucky’s all-time girls’ coaching wins list behind former Perry County Central and M.C. Napier coach Randy Napier.

8. First time here

Lawrence County stunned four-time defending 15th Region champion Pikeville to earn the Bulldogs’ first trip to the state tournament.

Lawrence overcame a 10-point deficit with an 18-7 run in the fourth quarter to topple the Panthers 50-49 on Sunday. It was Lawrence’s first win over Pikeville in 13 tries dating as far back as the KHSAA’s online records go, more than 25 years.

9. They are who we thought they were

The Herald-Leader Preseason Top 25 predicted 10 of the teams who made it to Rupp Arena.

Our preseason coaches survey ranked them this way: No. 1 Sacred Heart, No. 2 George Rogers Clark, No. 3 Mercy, No. 4 Cooper, No. 5 McCracken County, No. 7 Bowling Green, No. 13 Mercer County, No. 15 Henderson County, No. 16 Bethlehem and No. 25 Ashland Blazer.

10. Toughest draw

The matchup of Mercy and Cooper could be a state championship tilt if they had not been drawn together for Thursday’s first round.

11. The overdogs

Well, Sacred Heart, of course is the favorite to win it all once again, but the survivor of the Cooper-Mercy game will be favored on its side of the bracket until the finals. George Rogers Clark has been a top-five team much of the year and has tournament experience.

12. The underdogs

Knott County Central (23-9), champion of the 14th Region, comes in as the lowest-rated team, according to Dave Cantrall’s ratings for the field. The last 14th Region team to win a first-round game was Breathitt County in 2008.

But Lawrence County’s draw of No. 1 Sacred Heart makes the Bulldogs the biggest underdog of the tournament.

13. Battle-tested

According to the “opponents’ winning percentage” (OWP) compiled by the KHSAA’s RPI ratings, Bowling Green has faced the toughest schedule this year with an OWP of .66880. Next comes George Rogers Clark (.65905) and Cooper (.65493).

The Purples have gone up against six Sweet 16 teams this season and played McCracken County and Bethlehem twice.

Henderson County’s schedule included eight out-of-state opponents, so its low OWP of .55347 is skewed by the KHSAA formula. Still, Henderson only played three games against Sweet 16 opponents.

Knott County Central’s OWP is next lowest at 0.55506. The Patriots have not faced anyone in this year’s field.

Sacred Heart’s ZaKiyah Johnson (11) looks for an opening while guarded by George Rogers Clark’s Brianna Byars (23) on Feb. 7 in Winchester.
Sacred Heart’s ZaKiyah Johnson (11) looks for an opening while guarded by George Rogers Clark’s Brianna Byars (23) on Feb. 7 in Winchester.

14. Sizing them up now

Here’s how this year’s first-round matchups look competitively, according to the Dave Cantrall’s ratings for the Girls’ Sweet 16 field. Games are sorted from tightest ratings matchup to biggest disparity. Don’t be fooled, however. There are upsets every year. Sometimes big ones.

9. Frederick Douglass, 79.5 vs. 11. North Laurel, 77.8 (FD +1.7).

5. Mercy, 84.7 vs. 2. Cooper, 86.9 (Cooper +2.2).

10. Owensboro Catholic, 78.8 vs. 6. Bowling Green, 82.3 (BG +3.5).

3. McCracken County, 86.6 vs. 8. Bethlehem, 80.9 (MC +5.7).

4. George Rogers Clark, 86.2 vs. 12. Mercer County, 75.9 (GRC +10.3).

7. Henderson County, 81.4 vs. 15. Simon Kenton, 70.0 (HC +11.4).

16. Knott County Central, 61.5 vs. 13. Ashland Blazer, 75.7 (AB +14.2).

1. Sacred Heart, 91.8 vs. 14. Lawrence County, 73.6 (SH +18.2).

In 2022, teams rated higher by Cantrall won six of the eight first-round games. Eventual champion Sacred Heart was rated No. 1.

15. Top team stats

Scoring offense: Sacred Heart, 69.8. Scoring defense: Cooper, 37.1. Scoring margin: McCracken County, 30.9. Field goal percentage: McCracken County, 53.8. Three-point field goal percentage: Henderson County, 41.8. Free-throw percentage: Mercy, 76.1.

16. Top individual stats

Scoring: Kensley Feltner, Lawrence County, 29.4. Rebounding: Leah Macy, Mercy, 12.7. Field goal percentage: Meadow Tisdale, Bowling Green, 64.2. Three-point shooting: Niah Rhodes, Frederick Douglass, 3.7 makes per game. Three-point percentage: Graci Risley, Henderson County, 51.9. Free-throw percentage: Emily Sizemore, North Laurel, 85.8.

2023 Girls’ Sweet 16

What: Sixteen-team tournament to decide Kentucky’s high school basketball state champion.

When: Wednesday through Saturday

Where: Rupp Arena

Tickets: Tickets available for purchase at

Girls’ Sweet 16 schedule

At Rupp Arena

Wednesday’s first-round games

11 a.m.: Owensboro Catholic (25-9) vs. Bowling Green (24-10)

1:30 p.m.: Sacred Heart (32-3) vs. Lawrence County (30-5)

6 p.m.: George Rogers Clark (26-7) vs. Mercer County (21-13)

8:30 p.m.: Frederick Douglass (24-8) vs. North Laurel (29-6)

Thursday’s first-round games

11 a.m.: Knott County Central (23-9) vs. Ashland Blazer (25-7)

1:30 p.m.: McCracken County (32-2) vs. Bethlehem (28-7)

6 p.m.: Mercy (24-9) vs. Cooper (29-3)

8:30 p.m.: Henderson County (26-4) vs. Simon Kenton (19-14)

Friday’s quarterfinals

11 a.m.: Owensboro Catholic-Bowling Green winner vs. Sacred Heart-Lawrence County winner

1:30 p.m.: George Rogers Clark-Mercer County winner vs. Frederick Douglass-North Laurel winner

6 p.m.: Knott County Central-Ashland Blazer winner vs. McCracken County-Bethlehem winner

8:30 p.m.: Mercy-Cooper winner vs. Henderson County-Simon Kenton winner

Saturday’s games

11 a.m.: Semifinal 1: Winners of Friday’s morning session

1:30 p.m.: Semifinal 2: Winners of Friday’s evening session

7 p.m.: Championship

The John Clay Podcast: Kentucky Girls’ Sweet 16 preview

‘I just love all sports’: Douglass star content being multisport athlete after MVP effort

High school basketball: Dave Cantrall’s ratings for the 2023 Girls’ Sweet 16 field

2023 Girls’ Sweet 16: Statistics for every basketball team in the state tournament

2023 Girls’ Sweet 16: Rosters for every basketball team in the state tournament

The field is set for the 2023 Girls’ Sweet 16. View the bracket and the complete schedule.

2023 Boys’ Sweet 16: View the bracket as schools claim spots for next week’s state tourney