Highland’s Rece Portell hit two huge 3-pointers in the third quarter and scored all 13 points in the second half Thursday in a 41-36 victory against the Central Cougars, helping the Bulldogs (28-3) win their 20th straight game and second straight regional title in the championship game of the Class 3A Central Regional.
“She obviously goes under the radar with all the dirty work she does for them, but she’s a tremendous player,” Central coach Nathan Rueter said of Portell, a junior guard who is the team’s fifth-leading scorer, and who played solid defense on Cougars scoring leader Faye Meissner. “You’ve got to tip your cap; (Portell) knocked down some huge shots tonight and played great defense.
“She’s the type of player that every single coach in America wants on their team. (Alex) LaPorta and (Madison) Wellen get all the headlines, but Portell should get some tonight.”
Highland, ranked fourth in the Class 3A state poll, will face Carterville in the Waterloo Sectional semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Portell hit 9 of 15 shots during the regional 3-point competition before the game, which allowed her some extra shooting practice.
“It felt pretty nice,” Portell said. “The 3-point contest was a nice warm-up, but I’ve been hitting a few in games, and this felt nice. I needed my confidence back up.”
She’s the type of player that every single coach in America wants on their team. (Alex) LaPorta and (Madison) Wellen get all the headlines, but Portell should get some tonight. Central coach Nathan Rueter on Rece Portell
The Bulldogs also got 13 points and a dozen rebounds from LaPorta, while Wellen added seven points. Meissner had 14 points for Central, and Carson Newkirk added 12.
Central (16-14) led an extremely physical contest 16-14 at halftime, throwing more than a scare into the Bulldogs.
“It was a little intense; Coach told us to come ready to play,” Portell said. “We went in at halftime, and he said, ‘They punched you in the mouth; punch them back.’”
The Bulldogs landed several punches, none carrying more weight than Portell’s three 3-pointers and 13 second-half points.
“At halftime we made a few minor adjustments and the kids responded real well,” Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “That’s the thing about us, we’re not one-dimensional. I know we’ve got Alex, I know we’ve got Madison but our freshman guard (Ellie Brown) stepped up and hit some big free throws for us.
“Rece stepped up and hit some big shots. It was a dogfight and we just made a few more plays down the stretch than they did.”
Both teams played solid defense, but Highland forced 11 of Central’s 23 turnovers in the second half. The Bulldogs, who struggled to hit shots (13 for 43, 30 percent) took control by outscoring the Cougars 14-8 in the third quarter. Central never got closer than six points again.
“They had us schemed up,” Rueter said. “Once we got into the situation where we had to play more traditional man (to man), we were kind of in trouble at that point, and we knew it.”