Sometimes, you just laughed.
Not that anything she did evoked humor. But when she penetrates into the lane, draws two defenders and then sends a wrap-around pass to a teammate for an uncontested layup, what are you supposed to do?
If the accompanying chuckle following one of her highlight-reel plays could be translated into English, it might say, “No way!”
Mariah Ruff wasn't simply the best girls basketball player around here during a junior season that included averages of 17.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 3.7 steals, she was among the best in the state.
She beat teams on the perimeter, off the dribble, in transition, with the pass, on defense and as a rebounder.
For the second straight year, Ruff earned Daily Star Player of the Year honors for girls basketball. That comes on heels of sharing Daily Star Player of the Year honors in soccer with teammate Madison Miller.
But it's basketball that will pay for Ruff's education at Division I St. Bonaventure. And it's basketball that might make some wonder if this area has produced a better girls player.
With a seemingly endless array of offensive moves, defensive tenacity and a powerful pair of legs that give her quickness and jumping ability to pull it all off, Ruff dazzled opponents all season.
But no more so than in the postseason. As the competition got better, so did she.
“The further we got into the state tournament, I kept asking her to do more and she did,” Matt Miller, The Daily Star's Coach of the Year, said of Ruff, a First Team all-state selection in Class B. “She saved her best basketball for the end of the year. She's good, talented and such a competitive kid. That competitive spirit in her also increased in the postseason. She played awesome and it was an unbelievable run.”
Added Ruff: “As a whole, the stage kept getting bigger and bigger. For the seniors in soccer and basketball, I didn't want them to go out losing. They're such great friends. I tried as hard as I could not to lose. It didn't work out, but I felt we stepped up and everyone did their jobs.”
If you were lucky enough to attend Oneonta's 57-56 overtime defeat of Horseheads in the Southern Tier Athletic Conference championship game at Binghamton University's Events Center, you saw vintage Ruff. Twenty-one points, 10 rebounds and eight assists worth of Ruff — numbers that don't begin to explain how well she played that afternoon.
From no-look passes to deep three-pointers to that final drive-and-dish that set up Minnie Webster for a go-ahead three from the left wing with 4.1 seconds left in overtime, she did it all.
Fast forward to a state quarterfinal at Onondaga Community College, where Ruff finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in a 57-52 win over Utica Notre Dame. Ruff scored the final seven points that night, when she opposed fellow D-I recruit Emily Durr. A summer teammate of Ruff's on the Albany City Rocks — an elite AAU squad — Durr finished with 23 points and also made First Team all-state in Class B.
Ruff, a 5-foot-7 point guard, hit five threes that night, the last from the top of the key with 1:35 left to give OHS a 55-52 lead.
That led to the season-finale, a state semifinal matchup against three-time defending state champion Irvington and its pair of D-I recruits in Lexi Martins (Lehigh) and Brittni Lai (Marist).
As Oneonta dug a 13-point halftime deficit, Ruff looked ordinary. As Oneonta rallied back from a 14-point deficit in the third quarter, she looked like the best player on the floor.
“She was well aware of the fact they had two D-I kids and they were the three-time state champs,” Miller said of Ruff, who scored 21 of her game-high 26 points after halftime and finished with seven rebounds and eight assists. “There wasn't much more she could have done. I thought she outplayed both of those kids.”
She hit threes off the catch, threes off the dribble, turnaround jumpers in traffic and driving layups. The one that got away came in the closing seconds with Oneonta down two. Ruff grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled the length of the court and had an excellent look at a tying basket — a contested, right-handed layup that hit glass and then iron before falling out. Daily Star First Team All-Star Natalie Vanderlaan-Meyering grabbed the offensive rebound, but she too missed as time ran out in a heart-breaking, 55-53 loss.
“She took a great shot at the end,” Miller said. “It's to her credit that she pushed it down the floor in 7 seconds. Some people thought she got fouled on the play. She just stepped up and that's what you expect from good players.”
Irvington won the state title next day over Waterloo by 38 points.
“We were one of the best teams in New York state,” said Ruff, who also led Oneonta to two double-digit victories over Class A state champion Troy and to a 16-point win over Class A state finalist Maine-Endwell during the regular season. “Basketball is funny sometimes. I felt like we were the better team. It was a game between two fantastic teams and something to remember definitely.
“I definitely think (the second half) was one of the greatest halves we played,” she continued. “We played really well and it came from our hearts. We wanted it more.”
Ruff will take 1,511 varsity points into her senior season, with 1,008 of them coming in an OHS uniform. Ruff played two varsity seasons at Andes before transferring to Oneonta as a freshman.
Though Ruff led way, she had plenty of pieces around her — and Miller brought them all together.
The Yellowjackets overcame a season-ending injury to starting guard Dani Nicosia, an athletic senior who played varsity basketball since her freshman season.
Along with the 6-2 Vanderlaan-Meyering inside, the Yellowjackets had fellow Daily Star First Team pick Kelsey Baker banging away on the interior. If teams sagged on Oneonta's big people, Webster and Hayley Dower could hurt them from three-point range.
Additionally, Maria DiMartin and Sierra Sangetti-Daniels provided depth.
“We had some weaknesses, but the way the kids complemented each other, what you were weak in you didn't have to do a lot of,” said third-year coach Miller, who guided the Yellowjackets to a 20-2 record. “Hayley and Minnie were left to do what they did best — catch and shoot. It was the same thing with Kelsey and Nat as teams really had to double down on them. That gave Minnie and Hayley space to operate. Defensively, we were athletic enough to keep teams in front of us. The pieces were all there and the kids complemented each other so well. It was easy to coach those kids.”
In addition to the STAC title, the Yellowjackets won their sixth straight sectional crown — a streak that's two longer than the next best in Section Four girls basketball history — and beat 10 teams that were state-ranked in classes AA, A or B.
Perhaps the best compliment paid to Miller came from Ruff, who said when she was deciding which college to attend that she wanted to play “for a coach like Mr. Miller.”
Rob Centorani can be reached at email@example.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.