Known as one of the top offensive players in southern Illinois, Highland senior Amanda Ponce stepped up once again on Wednesday in the title game of the Mascoutah Girls Basketball Invitational. Only this time it was on the defensive end.
With Highland holding a 45-42 lead over two-time defending tournament champion Central with under 11 seconds remaining, Ponce stepped into the passing lane for a steal then made one of two free throws with 9.1 seconds left to all but clinch the Bulldogs’ 46-44 win before a large crowd at Mascoutah High School.
“I read the eyes of the player I was guarding. I could tell she was going to make that pass and so I decided to take a chance and step into the passing lane,” Ponce said. “This is a big win for us heading into the second half of the season.
“Tonight I just tried to find the open player and we were able to hit some shots early in the game. It’s not only me, we’ve got a lot of girls on this team who can really shoot the basketball and I think we showed that tonight.”
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Central (13-2) cut the lead to 46-44 with 5.5 seconds remaining but by the time the Highland player collected the ball for the inbounds pass there was under five seconds remaining, meaning the Bulldogs could let the clock run out.
The win at the 38th annual Mascoutah Girls Basketball Invitational is the first since 2010 for Highland, which made it wins in a row to raise its record to 11-3. And like that team which featured current Arizona State University standout Katie Hempen, this team also featured a big-time go-to player in Ponce and a number of solid players who have their roles and do them well.
Ponce led Highland with 21 points, while Madison Wellen added 11 and junior Alex LaPorta chipped in with eight. LaPorta also did her part on the defensive end of the court, holding Central senior all-staer Kendra Wilken to nine points.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of the girls. We shot the basketball very well early in the game, but we knew that Central is a great basketball team and that they would make a run at us,” Lady Bulldogs coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “It was a team effort. From Madison and Amanda shooting the 3-pointers early to give us a lead to Alex going a great job on Kendra in the post. And we had some other kids step up as well.
“But Amanda just had a great tournament for us. I’m glad she’s on our team.”
With Ponce hitting four 3-point shots and Wellen and LaPorta each adding a basket from beyond the 3-point circle, Highland led 26-17 at halftime and 34-28 after three quarters. But Central, riding an 11-game winnind g streak entering the final, battled back.
With Faye Meissneer, Kaylee Schrand and Wilken all scoring four fourth quarter points, the Cougars had three possessions with under two minutes left in the game where they could drawn even. But three missed shots and a turnover were crushing blows to the Cougars chances.
“We knew they (Highland) could really shoot the basketball and they did in the second quarter when they took the lead on us. But that’s not what lost the ballgame for us,’’ Central coach Nathan Rueter said. “We battled back and gave ourselves a chance late. We just didn’t execute.”
Adding two points apiece for the Lady Bulldogs were senior Caitlin Lammers and juniors Abby Melosi and Hayley Taylor.
Highland 57, Belleville East 51
Ponce, who scored 16 points in the second half of the Bulldogs quarterfinal win over O’Fallon, was back at it again against the Lancers as she scored 20 points after intermission to fuel the Highland win in the semifinals.
Tied at 20 at halftime, the Lancers outscored Highland 12-8 over the first six minutes of the third quarter and led 32-28 following a basket by senior Morgan St. James.
But Highland, keyed by Ponce and a 3-point basket by LaPorta to end the quarter, scored 17 of the next 19 points to take a 45-34 lead midway through the fourth period.
East, getting 13 points from Ellisha Davis and 11 from Jailyn McClenny, rallied to within four points but could get no closer.
Ponce led Highland with 24 points while Wellen added 13.
Highland 59, O’Fallon 43
Held to just two free throws in the first half, Ponce scored 16 of her 18 points in the second half as Highland broke open a close game with a 15-2 scoring run and went on for the quarterfinal win.
Highland (9-3), getting eight first-half points from Wellen and continued strong play on defense and on the backboards from LaPorta, built a 29-18 lead after two-quarters
But O’Fallon (6-5) caught fire. Getting a pair of 3-point field goals from senior Becca Althoff and five points from sophomore Jayla Stubblefield, the Panthers rallied to within two points at 33-31.
A potential game-tying jumper from Stubblefield then rimmed out on O’Fallon’s next possession and Ponce followed with a 3-point field goal to increase the lead to five points.
Ponce then scored six of the Bulldogs next eight points as Highland (9-3) seized command with a 43-33 lead after three-quarters. When the Bulldogs scored seven points to start the final quarter, the lead was 50-33. O’Fallon would get no closer than 13 points the rest of the game.
“I thought we were able to get out and get some easy baskets in transition early and we got out to a nice lead, but to O’Fallon’s credit they battled back,’’ Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “Amanda and Madison have both played a lot of games for us. I feel comfortable when either of them has the ball in their hands.’’
Althoff led O’Fallon with 16 points.
Wellen finished with a dozen points while Lammers tossed in eight points for the Lady Bulldogs, who also received six points apiece from LaPorta, Melosi and Taylor, two points from sophomore Rece Portell and one point from junior Katie Kampwerth.