The Highland Bulldogs ended 2015 with a bang when they defeated Central 46-44 nine days ago to win the Mascoutah Girls Invitational.
On Thursday, the Bulldogs celebration continued.
Senior Amanda Ponce scored eight of her 19 points to highlight a near flawless first quarter when Highland jumped out to a 17-0 lead and went on to score a 57-48 win over Central before a large crowd at Central High School.
Ranked 13th in the Class 3A state poll released on Tuesday, the Bulldogs connected on four of their first five shots — with Ponce scoring twice and junior Alex LaPorta adding an offensive putback — as Highland jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first 2 minutes, 25 seconds of the game.
It would get no better for the Cougars, ranked No. 1 in Class 2A, for the remainder of the first period. Unofficially, Central finished the opening period 0-for 13 from the floor with seven turnovers.
For Bulldogs coach Mike Arbuthnot, his pregame talk of getting out to a fast start couldn’t have been executed any better.
“On the way over here we talked about how important getting out to a fast start in the first four minutes would be because we knew Central would come out fired up and ready to play. We did that,” Arbuthnot said. “We hit some shots early which got our confidence up, we attacked the boards and got a couple of putbacks and we created some turnovers with our defense. We were ready to play.”
Highland (13-3) led 30-16 at halftime then used the play of LaPorta, who scored a game-high 23 points including 17 in the second half, to keep a safe margin as it handed Central (15-3) a rare loss at home.
Ponce and LaPorta were unstoppable in the first quarter. With the 6-foot-1 LaPorta scoring twice and Ponce slicing and dicing her way through the Cougars defense for six points, the Bulldogs took a 10-0 lead with 3:53 left in the first period.
Less than a minute later, junior guard Madison Wellen got into the act with a 3-point basket, forcing Cougars coach Nathan Rueter to call his second timeout in the first six minutes of the game.
“They (Highland) were ready to play and we, for some unknown reason, we weren’t which was very unusal considering the game was played in our gym,” Rueter said. “Credit their kids. They came out with a lot of energy and we were sluggish.
“We had some good looks a few times early and when they didn’t fall. It just seemed like we lost our focus. We’re going to have to play better and coach better.”
Central, which didn’t get on the scoreboard until Faye Meissner connected on a 3-point shot just 23 seconds into the second quarter, was led by senior all-stater Kendra Wilken, who scored 18 points.
But the 6-2 Cougars standout took a backseat to LaPorta who was simply all over the floor as she recorded a double-double with 23 points and 12 rebounds.
“Alex was all over the floor tonight,” Arbuthnot said. “Those who have watched her play know what a tremendous rebounder she is and how hard she plays. But tonight she did a good job of playing defense and she was able to step out and hit a couple of 3-point shots. She had a great game.’’
Central got 11 points from reserve guard Olivia Page, all in the final four minutes of the game.
Dean Criddle: 618-239-2661, @CriddleDean