HIGHLAND — If ever there was a team more prepared for what customarily is the nail-biting, buzzer-beating action of the Scott Credit Union Highland Girls Basketball Tournament, it's the Nashville Hornettes.
At least that's the hope of coach Wayne Harre.
Pushed to the limit by a Cahokia Conference team for the second time in three weeks in a 48-43 win over Carlyle on Thursday, the undefeated Hornettes enter the week-long event as the top-seed, but they're also a team still looking for better execution heading into the home stretch of the 2012-13 season.
"I'm not sure if we're playing good or bad right now,'' Harre said after his team rallied from 12-points down in the second half to edge Carlyle. "But we'll find out this week at Highland.
"We always look forward to playing here because this is always a very well-run event and we always see good competition. It's a chance to play four games and if you do that, you've played pretty well. It's also a chance to play some different teams.''
The Hornettes, who will kick off tournament play at 9 a.m. Saturday against Triad, are one of six ranked teams competing in what appears to be another loaded field.
Three of the teams are ranked in Class 2A, Nashville (19-0) is at No. 2, Central (18-2) is No. 3 and Carlyle (16-3) is 11th. Mater Dei (17-1) is ranked eighth in Class 3A, while in Class 1A Cowden-Herrick (11-4) is ranked seventh and Okawville (14-5) is No. 16.
Edwardsville, which won the tournament a year ago and is ranked second in Class 4A, is not in the field.
Eight first-round games will be played Saturday with action continuing throughout the week. The title game is set for 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 19.
The Hornettes starting five of seniors Shaye Harre and Erica Brown, juniors Hannah Jung and Shawn Rennegarbe and sophomore point guard Jordi Harre, is as good as it gets for small schools in Southern Illinois.
Shaye Harre scored 12 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter to spark Nashville's win against Carlyle.
A year ago, Central's Cougars (18-2) used the Highland Tournament as a stepping stone toward a second-place finish in the Class 2A state tournament.
The Cougars placed fourth in the Mascoutah Tournament in late December, third in the Highland Tournament in mid-January and then second at state in late February.
"It's definitely a great litmus test for where you are at," Central coach Nathan Rueter said of the tourney. "The competition is excellent. It's your last opportunity to really fine-tune some things before the postseason."
The Cougars' two losses this season -- 54-43 to Mater Dei on Dec. 3 and 44-31 to Nashville on Dec. 29 in title game of the Mascoutah Tournament -- have come against quality opponents.
"I'm pretty pleased," Rueter said. "We've had a couple of hiccups, a couple of instances where we got beat by really good teams, but at the same time I don't feel like they were empty losses.
"If you lose a game and you learn from it and you get better from it, then ultimately it benefits you. I think in both situations we have done that."
The Cougars have blended the old with the new in reloading this season.
Returning junior Maddie Timmermann is averaging 15.9 points per game, while freshman Kendra Wilken is averaging 15.8 points.
"We returned a lot of quality players and obviously you get a kid with the talent of Kendra Wilken, you are basically just picking up where you left off there," Rueter said. "It's obviously been a huge bonus for us."
The Mater Dei Knights (17-1) have won four straight since suffering their lone loss of the season, a 41-40 setback to Okawville in the Mascoutah Tournament.
"I think we've bounced back pretty well," Mater Dei coach Dave Kohnen said. "We've had four wins since then. It was a wake-up call where we have to start out the game a little stronger. They've done that since then.
"They've really taken care of business."
The Knights haven't skipped a beat this year despite losing four seniors, including two-time All-State selection Brooke Schulte, from last year's squad.
"I really liked what I saw this past summer, and they've carried that onto the court this season," Kohnen said. "We're really not very flashy, but I think our defense is real solid and the kids are a smart group of kids.
"On most nights, 70-75 percent of our field goals are based off assists. They're looking for the (open) person and they don't take very many bad shots. And, they try to keep the turnovers down. That keeps you in games right away."
All five starters for the Knights are seniors, but Emily Koelling is the only one averaging in double figures. Koelling averages 18.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
"We always consider ourselves kind of blue-collar," Kohnen said. "We may not score 80 points, but we'll hold you to 30 and score 55. The outcome still becomes the same.
"We have a group of kids who believe in each other and believe in the program, and a lot of times if you can get that accomplished, you are far ahead."
City rivals Belleville West and Althoff will meet in one of the most intriguing first-round matchups. The Maroons beat the Crusaders 45-30 on Dec. 15.
Shay Fluker leads the Maroons (11-5) with an average of 15.6 points per game. Imani Berry averages 11.3 points, while Jesheon Cooper averages 7.6 points and 7.7 rebounds.
UMass recruit Kymber Hill averages 17.5 points per game for the Crusaders.
Carlyle and Okawvile also feature future college players. Michigan-bound Paige Rakers (23.7 ppg.) leads the way for the Indians, while Quincy University recruit Megan Wienstroer (19.6) paces the Okawville attack.