On a night when the Highland Bulldogs were noticeably flat, senior MacKenzie Kleinmann stepped up on Monday at Highland High School.
With their normally high-powered offense thrown out of sync by a collapsing Mascoutah zone defense, the Bulldogs got 13 second half points from Kleinmann to take the lead then withstood a late Indians rally for a 42-40 win in a Mississippi Valley Conference game.
Ranked 11th in the Class 3A state poll and coming off an emotional win over the top ranked Class 2A team — Central — just five days ago, Highland (16-1, 6-0) trailed by eight points early, then rode the hot hand of Kleinmann to take a 10-poiunt lead midway in the fourth quarter.
But it wasn’t until Mascoutah junior Alex Cleveland’s potential game-winning 3-point shot hit the side of the backboard as the final horn sounded that the Bulldogs could breathe a sigh of relief as they kept their hopes for an undefeated MVC season alive.
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“Coming off a big week where we beat Mater Dei and Central and then beat Jerseyville at the (Highland Optimist) Shootout on Saturday, we were flat tonight,’’ Bulldogs coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “Mac (Kleinmann) came out and hit a few big 3’s and got us going and we were able to get the win.
“We made some turnovers that we don’t usually make, and we didn’t close well when we missed some free throws down the stretch. But again we sometimes forget that we’re dealing with 15-, 16- and 17-year-old kids. Every night is a different situation.’’
While the Bulldogs made the plays needed late in the game, Mascoutah’s zone defense was the story of nearly the first three quarters. With junior Maddie Nekola connecting on two of her four 3-point baskets and Katie Jokisch adding six first half-points, the Indians led 15-7 with just over four minutes left in the first half.
But with the Bulldogs’ Olivia LaPorta scoring six of her 11 points and Madison Wellen connecting on a 3-point shot, Highland tallied 12 of the final 14 points of the second quarter and led 19-17 at halftime.
“We wanted to give them (Highland) a look that maybe they hadn’t seen before. For almost three quarters our zone was very effective,’’ Indians coach Terry Moeller said. “Maddie (Nekola) is an excellent shooter, and tonight she showed that again.
“I thought we played very well tonight, and I told the girls after the game that I was proud of their effort. Now we’ve got to try to build on what we did here tonight.”
Nekola, who led all scorers with 18 points. combined with Cleveland to hit 3-point jumpers in the third quarter as Mascoutah (7-9, 3-2) stayed within two points.
Finally able to penetrate the Indians zone defense better, Highland took its biggest lead of the game when Kleinmann and Wellen hit 3-point shots in the opening 51 seconds of the fourth quarter to give their team a 37-27 lead.
“We were hesitant and didn‘t attack their zone defense for much of the game. Why? If I had that answer I would be making a lot of money,’’ Arbuthnot said. “Mac hit a couple of 3’s and I think that had an impact and then we were able to attack a little better inside.
“Give coach (Terry) Moeller and his team credit. They kept coming at us.’’
Trailing 40-31 with just over four minutes left, the Indians got a 3-point shot from Nekola, a short jumper from Jokisch and a 12-foot jumper from Nekola to draw within two points. Missed free throws by LaPorta and Amanda Ponce helped give the Indians a shot at a major upset. But Cleveland’s final attempt was well off the mark.