With the Highland struggling to find offensive cohesiveness and the team’s second leading scorer, Madison Wellen, left the game after suffering a lower back injury, the Lady Bulldogs found themselves trailing 38-30 to an upset-minded visiting Mascoutah squad in the waning seconds of the third quarter .
But senior stalwart Amanda Ponce refused to let her team’s bid for a three-peat of the Mississippi Valley Conference championship be spoiled as she pumped in 13 of Highland’s final 21 points to help the Lady Bulldogs score the clutch 51-45 come-from-behind victory Thursday and clinch a split with Triad for the conference crown.
“Amanda Ponce is not going to go down, she is our go-to player and she will fight to the very end,” Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “The thing about tonight is they gutted one out. They showed such great heart and great desire and the will to finish. That’s how they’ve been all year and that’s how we want to continue.”
After losing their league opener 63-58 at Triad, the Lady Bulldogs (24-4 overall, 9-1 MVC), ranked seventh in this week’s Class 3A state poll, won their final nine MVC games to share the title with the Knights (23-3, 9-1), who pounded Waterloo 70-51 on Thursday night.
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Although it was far from easy on this night, Highland again found a way to get it done when it mattered the most and the main protagonist was Ponce, a Maryville University recruit who poured in a game-high 25 points.
“As a team, we always have to find a way to finish no matter what the circumstances are,” Ponce said. “Mascoutah is a good ball club and this was a great game to play before regionals. When we were down we never lost hope and we were able to find a way. Winning the conference outright would have been better, but there’s nothing to hang our heads on because we have won the conference the past three years.”
Down by eight, Ponce drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key with time winding down in the third quarter to start the comeback. She then kept it going by scoring the first four points of the fourth frame, and junior Alex LaPorta added a pair of free throws to cap off a 9-0 run and put Highland on top 39-38 with 5:53 remaining.
After the Indians grabbed the lead back at 41-39, Ponce threw in three more points to reclaim the lead for HHS with 4:33 to play.
Mascoutah senior Tennay Green made two foul shots to give the Indians their final lead at 43-42 with 3:07 to go.
But Ponce sandwiched four free throws around a short turnaround baseline jumper from junior Hayley Taylor, and freshman Emmy Nyquist sank a pair from the charity stripe to extend Highland’s lead to 48-43 with 1:59 left.
Afte Mascoutah senior Maddie Nekola hit a short baseline jumper to bring the Indians back within one possession, LaPorta missed both free throws with 37 ticks on the clock.
However, LaPorta quickly redeemed herself just 2.3 seconds later, ripping down the offensive rebound and earning a foul. This time, she nailed both to seal the third straight MVC championship for the Lady Bulldogs.
LaPorta matched Green’s production as each scored a dozen points for their respective teams.
“To go 9-1 and be conference champs, that’s three years in a row and nobody can take that away from these seniors,” Arbuthnot said referring to Ponce and Caitlin Lammers. “Going into the season, if you would have said us and Triad would be 9-1, I would have said that would be quite a feat because this conference is tough because you’ve also got CM (19-10, 6-4) and Mascoutah (15-12, 4-6). I thought the conference champion might end up at like 7-3 or at best 8-2. We were 0-1 and got back to 9-1; that is pretty special and this is a special group of kids.”
Wellen, who averages 12.5 points per game, scored six points before suffering the back injury in the third quarter on what appeared to be a foul but was not called. She hopes to not miss any time.
“It means a lot to us as a program to win the conference three years in a row,” Wellen said. “Every year, it is a goal of ours and for the past 3 years we have achieved it. It's awesome knowing that your hard work finally payed off. We know that teams are always looking to take a win from us, but we were able to pull through the rest of the season.”
The Lady Bulldogs close out the regular season with a home game against Taylorville on Saturday afternoon before opening the postseason with a regional semifinal game against Jerseyville on Wednesday at 6 p.m. Highland easily swept the Panthers 73-59 and 69-51 during the regular season.
Highland will most likely meet Triad for the regional championship Thursday at 7 p.m. But the Knights will first have to beat Mascoutah for the third time in Wednesday’s later semifinal at 7:30.
“I’m looking forward to postseason, and I’m not ready for our season to come to an end,” Ponce said.