Playing the top-ranked Class 2A team in the state, the senior-dominated Highland Bulldogs refused to go away on Thursday at Highland High School.
Getting clutch play down the stretch from seniors Olivia LaPorta and Mackenzie Kleinmann and junior Amanda Ponce, Highland erased a 12-point third quarter deficit with a fourth quarter rally for the ages as they edged Central 50-47 in the battle of state basketball powers.
With junior all-state center Kendra Wilken and Kaylee Schrand combining for 28 points, Central (16-1) built leads of 36-24 and 38-26 midway through the third quarter. But when Ponce closed the third period with a 3-point basket, the large Highland turnout had hope as the Bulldogs pulled to within 40-33.
“We just kept battling and playing hard. That’s all we could do. Central is a great team and we just had to pull together,’’ Ponce said. “We had some players step up and make plays down the stretch. We had been here before. We knew what we needed to do.’’
Ponce made two of the biggest plays with key steals which resulted in layups to help key the Bulldogs rally and when LaPorta made two free throws with 1:41 left, the Bulldogs had their first lead since the first quarter at 48-47.
Wilken, wearing a protective shield as the result of suffering a broken nose in the semifinals of the Mascoutah Invitational 12 days ago, missed a short range jumper with under a minute left. But Central also turned the ball over twice in the final 18 seconds, both coming on steals by Highland senior Emily Vonder Haar.
Following the first steal by Vonder Haar, Ponce made two free throws with 4.8 seconds left to increase the lead to 50-47. Vonder Haar then stole the ensuing inbounds pass and ran the clock out as Bulldogs fans stormed the floor to celebrate with their team.
“What did we do differently in the fourth quarter? We turned up the pressure, made them (Central) play faster then they wanted to play. We wanted to turn it into a 94 foot game and that’s what we did,’’ Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “We’ve got a lot of seniors on this team and when you’ve got senior leadership and experienced players who have played in big games like this before, you’ve always got hope. We had a number of players step up.’’
LaPorta and Ponce paced Highland (15-1) with 12 points each, while Wilken paced Central with 18 and Schrand added 12.
A 5-10 junior, Schrand hit four medium range jumper in the first half while Wilken scored 12 of her 18 points in the first two quarters. Senior Sophie Rickhoff added a 3-point basket midway in the second period as the Cougars led 28-20 at halftime.
Seemingly taking the game over, Wilken scored six points in the early in the second half. The third of three consecutive Wilken baskets gave Central a 38-26 lead.
But the Bulldogs rallied.
“We just made too many mistakes in the fourth quarter and Highland being the good team that they are, capitalized on those mistakes,’’ Central coach Nathan Rueter said. “I wish we had won the game. But if we can learn from this, go back and watch the film, work on the things that we need to correct then we can turn this into a positive.
“We’re a better basketball team this week then we were last week and if we can continue to improve each week for the remainder of the season, we’ll be fine.’’
The meeting on Thursday between two of the top three girls basketball teams in the metro east along with undefeated Edwardsville could be the first of two in the next 16 days. Central and Highland are the top two seeds for the Highland Girls Basketball Invitational which begins on Jan. 17.
“We’ve both got to make it to the finals first. That won’t be easy,’’ Arbuthnot said when asked about the possibility of a rematch. “I told the girls that this game tonight had the atmosphere of a regional or sectional title game with two good teams playing before a big crowd that was really into it.’