Watching his Highland girls basketball team play a near flawless second quarter and build a nine-point halftime lead on Central on Wednesday in the title game of the 38th annual Mascoutah Girls Basketball Invitational, Bulldogs coach Mike Arbuthnot said he knew it was just a matter of time — time before the two-time defending champion Cougars made their run.
The question was could the Bulldogs withstand the Central charge.
Thanks to a brilliant game from senior Amanda Ponce, six 3-point baskets and clutch play down the stretch from Alex LaPorta and Madison Wellen, the Bulldogs (11-3) held off Central to win their first Mascoutah Invitational title since 2010, downing the Class 2A state power Cougars 46-44.
“You knew they would make a run at us. (Central’s) Nathan Rueter is a great coach and his teams are always so well prepared,” Arbuthnot said during the postgame celebration. “Amanda (Ponce) had a great night and a great tournament for us and when we needed to make a play in the end she stepped up and made one.
“We shot the ball very well in the second quarter and I think that kind of got us going in other areas of the game. Sometimes when your offense gets going the way it did, it kind of ignited us on the defense end of the floor as well. I thought the job Alex (LaPorta) did on Kendra (Wilken) was a big factor in us winning the game. But we had other girls step up as well. It was a team effort.”
Central (13-2) trailed 34-28 entering the final quarter With Faye Meissner, Kaylee Schrand and Kendra 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.
But it wasn’t until Ponce stepped into the passing lane for a steal and then made one of two free throws with 9.1 seconds left to all but clinch the title that a large group of Bulldogs supporters could start to celebrate.
“She (Ponce) was the best player on the court tonight,” Central coach Nathan Rueter said. “Without question. And Highland was the better team.
“As a basketball coach this is the kind of games that we need to play to get us ready for the postseason because it shows us what our strengths and weaknesses are heading down the stretch. It doesn’t do us a lot of good when we’re winning every game by 25 to 30 points. But by the same token, we had some chances to win the game and we didn’t execute. This basketball program is to the point to where we’re happy with a moral victory. Well short tonight and that’s disappointing.”
Mater Dei, O’Fallon claim titles
It wasn’t the tournament championship, but the Mater Dei Knights and the O’Fallon Panthers also walked out of Mascoutah High School as champions.
O’Fallon, which lost to Highland in the tournament quarterfinals, claimed a pair of victories on Wednesday, including a 51-47 triumph over host Mascoutah in the fifth-place game. While, a young Mater Dei team coninues to show promise as it defeated Mount Vernon 59-49 in the consolation final.
In a tournament which saw several freshmen shine, Mater Dei’s star newcomer Kierra Winkeler scored 16 points to key the Knights win over the Rams.
Just 4-5 entering tournament play on Monday, coach David Kohnen’s team begins the second half of the season 7-6 and feeling good about its future.
“We’re still young but to come in here and go 3-1 against what I think were four very solid opponents, shows how much we’ve impoved since the beginning of the season,” Kohnen said. “It also shows us what we need to work on heading into the last six of seven weeks of the season. I was pleased with the progress we made. Now we’ve got to go back to work.”
O’Fallon coach Ryan Massey also got outstanding tournament performances from seniors Marta Durk and Becca Althoff as they helped lead the Panthers to a 3-1 record and the fifth place trophy. The Panthers held off Mascoutah and its outstanding guard Maddie Nekola 51-47 and will head back into Southwestern Conference play next week with an 8-5 mark.
“And we’re still playing without a starter and another player off the bench,” Massey said. “This was a good week for us not only because we won three of four games and saw things that we still need to work on, but because we had the opportunity to play four teams that we normally wouldn’t see during the regular season.”
While neither Belleville East or Belleville West were in the title game on Wednesday, fans who were on hand for the three-day tournament had to be impressed with freshman guards Chamya Darough of Belleville West and Kayla Rainey of Belleville East
Both selected all second-team all-tournament team selections, the lightning quick Rainey and athletic Darough were major reasons why the two Belleville teams reached the tournament semifinals.
“They are two special talents,” West coach Seth Garrett said after his team beat the Lancers in the third place game. “Kayla (Rainey) is just so quick and is a very smart basketball player.
“Chamya can be a bulldog. She has the ability to scored inside and out. They’ve both got bright futures and I’m sure they’ll have many battles over the next 3 1/2 years. If you are a fan of girls basketball in the city of Belleville you are going to enjoy watching these two. They’re going to get nothing but better as time goes on.’’
Belleville West senior guard Erika Harvey went down with an ankle injury in the second half of the Maroons 52-46 win over Belleville East in the third place game. One of the top perimeter players in the Southwestern Conference, Harvey missed her entire sophomore season with a knee injury.
“I don’t know how bad it is. It’s already swollen up pretty big,” an emotional Harvey said after the tournament. “We’re going to get an x-ray and pray nothing is broken.”
Ponce, LaPorta and Wilken headline the Mascoutah Girls Basketball Invitational first team all-tournament squad which was announced shortly after the title game on Wednesday. Also named were Harvey and Ellisha Davis of Belleville East.