Highland was not about to squander a shot at historic achievements in their regular-season finale Tuesday, Feb. 20 as the Bulldogs battled tooth and nail to outlast the Civic Memorial Eagles 51-49 in overtime. The win was their third game in a row and improved the team’s mark on the season to 20-8, making this the first Highland squad to win 20 games since 1996.
With the win, Highland also capped off a perfect sweep of the league and join the 2016 Bulldogs team as the only squads to go 10-0 in the Mississippi Valley Conference since 1999.
“We knew that was a possibility so we had a lot to play for tonight,” Highland coach Brian Perkes said. “Highland’s had some good basketball teams, and some good coaches, that haven’t done it. So this is a special team. Twenty years from now when people talk about one of the better teams that Highland basketball has ever had, certainly the 2017-18 team is going to be mentioned, and that’s a neat thing.
“And I’ll tell you what, this league is tough and very competitive. We feel very blessed and fortunate to go undefeated in the conference and to win 20 games.”
The MVC title is the fourth in a row and seventh in the past eight seasons for Highland, while CM dropped to 17-9 and 5-4 in the MVC.
“It was a great finish to the regular season for us tonight,” said Highland senior forward Stephen Schniers, who finished with 11 points. “Our fans were great tonight as the atmosphere was fantastic and played a part in helping us secure the win. Two of our goals at the beginning of the year were to win 20 games and the MVC, and being able to finish a perfect 10-0 in the elite conference was phenomenal for us. CM is a regional title contender, and tonight showed that we can play with anyone.”
After being pinned with a 58-56 home loss by Triad on Friday, Feb. 16, Civic Memorial suffered its second overtime loss this season to Highland, which rallied from a 12-point first-quarter deficit to beat the Eagles 58-57 on Dec. 5 in Bethalto.
This time, the Bulldogs led for most of the game and by as many as seven on several occasions, including early in the third quarter (35-28) before CM battled back to draw even just past the halfway point of the fourth quarter. Jaquan Adams’ strong basket inside tied it at 43-43 with 3:46 remaining, and Adams’ reverse layup off a nice feed from Geoffrey Withers put CM up 45-43 with 3:01 left in regulation.
But only 15 seconds later, Highland junior forward Sam LaPorta scored on a stickback of his own miss to deadlock the score again.
Then, after Adams returned the favor with an assist for a Withers reverse layup with 1:23 to play, Bulldog junior guard Brady Feldmann drove the baseline for a layup with 51.8 ticks to go.
The Eagles held the ball, tied at 47-47, for the final 50 seconds of the fourth quarter, but could not get off a shot before turning it over in the final seconds.
In OT, Adams hit a pair of free throws, and LaPorta countered with a pull-up jump shot from the elbow to tie the game at 49.
CM then held the ball again to position itself for the final shot in OT, but Highland fouled Withers with 11 seconds left.
Withers missed the front end of the one-and-one, and Highland junior guard Jack Etter was fouled by Withers with four seconds left. Etter calmly sank both clutch free throws for his only points of the game to provide the difference in the final score.
Caden Clark’s desperation heave at the buzzer banked slightly too hard off the glass, and the Bulldogs and their raucous crowd celebrated their historic milestones on Senior Night.
“They were two big free throws, and you don’t work on those things in practice, but Jack stood right up there and knocked them down,” Perkes said of Etter’s game-winning foul shots. “I’m not sure I could have handled another overtime. So when he hit that first throw, that was big, and it made that second one a lot easier. Those certainly were two big free throws by Jack.”
JaQuan Adams of CM topped all scorers with 25 points on 7 of 11 shots from the field and 11 of 12 free throws to run his career-best streak of 20-point games to six straight.
Adams, who moved into fourth on CM’s all-time scoring list, was coming off a career-high 37 points against Triad, after scoring 33 against Mascoutah two games earlier.
“Wow, what a player,” Perkes said of Adams. “We couldn’t stop him. We had really no answer for him.”
Highland helped offset the big game by Adams with balanced scoring.
Stephen Torre, a 6-foot-8 junior center, scored a team-high 13 points before fouling out with 4:19 left in the fourth quarter. Junior guard Jake Kruse added 12 points on four first-half 3-pointers, and senior forward Stephen Schniers and LaPorta addd 11 and nine points, respectively.
In addition, Feldmann threw in four points for the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs will now seek to win their first regional title in seven years when they host a Class 3A regional Feb. 26 through March 2.
The Bulldogs earned the sectional’s third seed and will first take on the winner of No. 6 Cahokia and No. 11 Triad in the second semifinal at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28.
The first semifinal will pit No. 2 East St. Louis against the winner of Breese Central and Mater Dei at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27.
The regional championship will take place at 7 p.m. Friday, March 2.
“We love that we are back playing at home where we have been shooting much better and we get to start our postseason run here,” Schniers said. “Along with being the first 20-win team in 22 years, we are ready to bring a regional title back to Highland and look forward to making some noise in the postseason.”