With Breese Central focusing on limiting senior leading scorers Madison Wellen and Alex LaPorta, favored Highland struggled mightily on offense and trailed the upset-minded Cougars 16-14 at halftime.
The Lady Bulldogs were in dire need of someone to step up on the offensive end in the second half to avoid a huge upset in Thursday’s championship game of the IHSA Class 3A Breese Central Regional.
Junior guard Rece Portell played the starring role after scoring all 13 of her points in the second half —including canning three clutch 3-pointers — while matching LaPorta for team-high point honors to help Highland survive a serious scare with a 41-36 victory and repeat as regional champions.
“Coach Arb (Mike Arbuthnot) said they were going to focus on Wellen and LaPorta so other people have to step up, and I guess I was just feeling it in the second half,” Portell said. “I haven’t hit (3-pointers) in a while, and I was a kind of low on confidence, but tonight I knew I needed to step up.”
Fifty-three seconds into the second half, Portell’s first triple gave Highland (28-3) its first lead of the night at 17-14. It was a lead they would never surrender.
It remained tight the rest of the quarter, and Portell gave her team a bit of a cushion when her second trifecta made it 26-22 with 62 seconds left in the third.
Portell added a mid-range pull-up jumper to send the Bulldogs to the fourth quarter up 28-24.
LaPorta and Wellen each scored a bucket to open the final stanza and Portell knocked down her third trey to put Highland in the driver’s seat to stay at 36-26 with 3:32 to play.
Portell closed out her night with a layup off a nice feed from Wellen to drive home the dagger at 38-30 with only 40 seconds to go.
Second-seeded Highland ran its school-record winning streak to 20 games and advanced to face Carterville in the semifinal of the Class 3A Waterloo Sectional, which as set for Tuesday. Carterville edged Centralia 49-45 to win the Centralia Regional.
The other sectional semifinal Tuesday pitted top-seeded Civic Memorial against Murphysboro. CM defeated Triad 66-43 to win the Roxana Regional, while Murphysboro nipped Benton 43-41 to win the Herrin Regional.
Portell also played very good defense on Central’s leading scorer, junior Faye Meissner, who finished with a game-high 14 points but six of her points came in the final 30-plus seconds when the outcome was no longer in doubt. The Cougars also got 12 points from junior Carson Newkirk.
“Playing defense helps me a lot, because my defense goes into my offense,” Portell said. “In the first half, coach Arb said we got punched, and in the second half we started punching back. Back-to-back regional champions feels nice.”
The game was a physical, no-nonsense battle in which both teams struggled offensively.
Highland’s team defense played a key role, forcing Central into 22 turnovers.
The Bulldogs won despite shooting just 27 percent (13-for-49) and with leading scorer Wellen held 11 points below her season average with seven points.
Freshman guard Ellie Brown chipped in five points and senior Hayley Taylor added three points.
“We’ve been in this type of atmosphere before but they came out in the first half and kind of controlled the tempo so we knew at halftime we had to change it up and play our game,” said LaPorta, who joined Portell with a baker’s dozen point total. “They were physical and took us out of our element for a little bit but we got back into it and made some shots in the end and executed, and Rece stepped up really big, on defense and offense.”
Arbuthnot was not surprised at all that it was a very tough game.
“They are well coached and they have got good athletes, and I knew coming in that we had to be prepared to play,” he said. “I liked the little adjustments we made at halftime and the kids responded. We went more into an attack mode and tried to overload some things, and the kids responded really well to it, so a lot of credit goes to them. Really, that third quarter got us to where we needed to be. But I am proud of these kids.”
Central coach Nathan Rueter, a former Highland High three-sport star, was proud of his team’s effort and how far they have come this season to push the third-ranked team in Class 3A all the way to the end and finish 16-14 after starting the season 0-4.
“Teams are going to out-talent us and teams are going to outscore us, but they are not going to outwork us, and any time you have that mentality and any time you have that to rely on you’re going to be in ballgames against good teams,” Rueter said. “Playing in our house and as hard nosed as our kids are, I am not surprised we gave them a fight at all. I am super proud of my girls and they have been a pleasure to coach all season, and hopefully I get all of them back next season and we make some significant strides in the offseason.”
Prior to the game, Wellen and Portell both advanced to the sectional in Three-Point Showdown, with Wellen nailing an eye-popping 12-of-15 shots from behind the arc, including finishing with six in a row, and Portell going a solid 9-for-15.
Highland 59, Freeburg 29
Highland used a 22-0 scoring run in the first half to coast into the regional title game with a 59-29 win over Freeburg Tuesday, Feb. 14 in the semifinal of the IHSA Class 3A Breese Central Regional.
A key member of the Bulldogs team which placed third in the Class 3A State Tournament a year ago, senior forward Alex LaPorta combined with 6-foot-1 senior center Hayley Taylor to score 10 of the Bulldogs’ first 12 points before senior guard Madison Wellen, junior guard Rece Portell and freshman guard Ellie Brown found the range.
During the 22-0 run, which occurred during a seven-minute stretch between the first and second quarters, Highland increased its lead to 24-3. Freeburg (13-16) would get no closer than 18 points the rest of the game.
“I thought we came out and played with a lot of energy early. We wanted to play fast, put pressure on and maybe get them (Freeburg) to play out of their element,” said Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot, whose team increased its school-record winning streak to 19 games.
Freshman point guard Brown canned a pair of 3-pointers and scored eight of her game-high 16 points in the second quarter as the Bulldogs lead grew to 40-13 at halftime.
“I thought we were very nervous early in the first half, and that’s to be expected. ... I just wanted us to play hard, and I thought we did that,” Freeburg coach Lori Crunk said. “We had nine wins last year and 13 this year. We’re improving.”
Kayla Mueller led Freeburg with 10 points.
LaPorta added 10 points for Highland, which got all 15 players on the roster into the game with a dozen of them numbering in the scoring column.
Wellen and Taylor each finished with six points for the Bulldogs.
Also scoring for Highland were sophomores Kayla Eads and Mae Riffel each with four points, senior Alisse Koishor with three points, and Portell, senior Abby Melosi, senior Katie Kampwerth, junior Lauren Baer and sophomore Lexi Taylor all with two points apiece.