The Highland High School girls basketball team rolled to two more decisive wins to close out the regular season on an 18-game winning streak and clinch its fourth consecutive Mississippi Valley Conference crown.
First on Tuesday, Highland traveled to Waterloo and made the battle of the Lady Bulldogs a laugher with an 80-47 victory.
Then on Thursday, HHS traveled to Mascoutah and mauled the Indians 55-26 to clinch a share of the conference championship with Civic Memorial.
The Bulldogs (26-3), ranked third in Class 3A, and the CM Eagles (27-2), ranked fourth, shared the top perch in the league with matching 9-1 ledgers.
It is the fourth year in a row Highland has won at least a share of the MVC title.
Postseason shifts into gear
Finishing the regular season without tasting defeat in its last 18 games — the longest winning streak in program history — has the Bulldogs armed with a lot of confidence heading to the postseason just a year after setting school records for wins (31) and best finish ever after bringing home the third-place trophy from the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Class 3A Girls State Basketball Tournament at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena.
“We definitely have a lot of momentum going into the postseason. We’ve been playing really well as a team lately and I think that is good for us,” said HHS senior guard Madison Wellen, who along with senior forward Alex LaPorta are the two key returners from last year’s record-smashing squad. “Obviously our goal is to win out and hopefully make another appearance at Redbird Arena. We are going to be taking each game as it comes and not look past anyone. Our focus will be game to game. I think winning the conference championship for the fourth year in a row is a nice touch as we go into the postseason. I know that everyone is on board and ready for the weeks to come.”
Highland (26-3) is the second seed behind CM (27-2) in the IHSA Class 3A Waterloo Sub-Sectional B and the two arch rivals would not face each other until the sectional championship.
HHS will compete in the Breese Central Regional, where the Bulldogs will open the playoffs at 6 p.m. Tuesday against the winner of Monday’s play-in game between No. 9 Freeburg and No. 10 Mascoutah.
The other regional semifinal at Central at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday will pit No. 3 Breese Central versus No. 7 Waterloo. The regional championship game is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16.
Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot, who has coached Highland to the four straight league titles, is optimistic but still cautious as his team prepares for the start of the postseason next week.
“It seems that every year there is a surprise team who gets to the sectional tournament. You have to be ready to play because on any given night anything can happen,” Arbuthnot said. “Two years ago we went to Jerseyville and lost to Civic Memorial in the title game when we were the higher seed, and then last year, if you remember, Triad was 27-3 going into the regional and lost in the first round.
“We aren’t looking past anyone. We’re gonna go up and play either Freeburg or Mascoutah Tuesday and play hard every minute of every quarter.”
Civic Memorial went 2-1against Highland during the regular season. The Eagles will compete in the Roxana Regional, where the Eagles will also open at 6 p.m. Tuesday against Monday’s winner between No. 6 Columbia and No. 8 Cahokia.
The other regional semifinal at Roxana will feature No. 4 Triad against either No. 5 Jerseyville or No. 11 Roxana.
Like Arbuthnot, Civic Memorial coach Jonathan Denney is confident about the Eagles’ chances.
“If we play with a mental and physical toughness, an edge so to speak, and don’t get comfortable and complacent, we will be a tough out for any team,” Denney said. “We need to continue to play present, not worrying about the past or the future. Staying in the moment possession by possession is a big key for us.”
Highland 55, Mascoutah 26
Leading by six after the first quarter, the Bulldogs overwhelmed the Indians 21-3 in the second stanza to carry a domineering 38-14 advantage into halftime.
Highland’s defense disrupted the Indians to 15 total points over the final three quarters and a dismal 19 percent (10-for-52) shooting from the field.
Mascoutah (5-22 overall, 1-9 MVC) went 1-for-12 from behind the 3-point line and did not have a double-digit scorer.
In addition, HHS racked up 15 steals, with Wellen thieving on a eye-popping seven of them herself.
Offensively, Highland’s two-pronged attack of Wellen and LaPorta again steered the way.
Wellen hit right on her season average after leading all scorers in the game with 18 points on 8-of-14 field goals. She also pulled down eight rebounds.
LaPorta achieved another double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. She also dished out a game-high five assists to go along with two steals.
Maiah Kelly led Mascoutah with eight points.
Also producing numbers for HHS were: junior Lauren Baer with six points, two rebounds and one assist; freshman Ellie Brown with five points, two assists, one board and one steal; junior Rece Portell with four points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals; senior Katie Kampwerth with two points and two boards; sophomore Kayla Eads with two points; senior Abby Melosi with two rebouinds and two steals; sophomore Mae Riffel with two assists; senior Breanna Frahm with two boards; senior Alisse Koishor with two rebounds; sophomore Lexi Taylor with two boards; freshman Megan Kronk with one rebound and one steal; and sophomore guard Emmy Nyquist with one assist.
Highland 80, Waterloo 47
HHS took charge from the opening tip, outscoring host Waterloo 26-6 in the first quarter and then never looked back.
Highland also poured it on in the third quarter with a 25-8 margin and led by a jaw-dropping 40-point margin at 68-28.
HHS took really good care of the ball with just four turnovers for the game. Highland also shot the ball well after going 32.-for-69 (46.4 percent) from the floor and 10-for-12 (83 percent) from the charity stripe.
All 15 players on HHS’ roster got into the game, with 12 of them registering in the scoring column.
LaPorta and Wellen again showed the way offensively, with LaPorta leading the charge this time with 21 points. LaPorta also contributed eight rebounds, three steals, one assist and one block.
Wellen scored 14 points and also added four boards, one assist and one steal.
Waterloo was paced by Kathryn Finnerty with 10 points while Charley Gregson and Jessica Whiteside each had eight points.
Also supplying stats for Highland were: senior Hayley Taylor with nine points, three rebounds, one assist and one steal; Melosi with nine points, two boards and two steals; Koishor with seven points, two rebounds, one assist and one steal; Brown with four points, a game-best six assists, two boards and one steal; Frahm with four points; Baer with three points, two rebounds, one assist and one steal; Kampwerth with two points, three boards and one steal; Nyquist with two points, three assists, one rebound and one steal; Riffel with two points and one steal; Eads with two points; Portell with three assists, two rebounds and one steal; and Lexi Taylor with one assist.