In the third heavyweight title bout in Class 3A girls, the Highland Lady Bulldogs avenged two previous losses to formerly unbeaten Civic Memorial with a 51-48 Mississippi Valley Conference win Saturday at the Highland Optimist Shootout at Highland High School.
It was the first loss this season for the Eagles (16-1, 5-1 MVC), the top-ranked Class 3A team in the state. Highland (14-3, 4-1), tied for fourth in the latest 3A state rankings, lost to Civic Memorial 58-53 and 57-45 earlier this season.
Highland beat CM four times last season and eliminated the Eagles in the sectional.
Highland junior Rece Portell covered Southern Illinois University Edwardsville recruit Allie Troeckler, who is averaging 22.3 points and has more than 2,200 points in her career, limiting her to just three field goals and 11 points.
“Portell did a fantastic job on Troeckler — held her to 11, and that’s half her average,” Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “Rece is one of these kids that’s a high-energy kid. We were talking before the game; who am I going to put in for Rece if she gets tired — and I told (them), ‘She’s not getting tired, OK?’ She gutted it out.”
The Bulldogs trailed 27-21 at halftime when Highland senior Madison Wellen went to work. She drained a 3-pointer to open the second half and scored five quick points to swing momentum.
“That was really big,” said Wellen, whose points helped the Bulldogs outscore the Eagles 20-10 in the third quarter. “Coach Arb talked to us at halftime about slowing ourselves down because they were trying to speed us up in the first half. In the second half, we were more patient, worked the ball around and found the open shot. We’ve been working on making the extra pass because CM is such a good defensive team. We just found each other open, and I was found open on the 3-point line a couple times. That really worked to our benefit.”
Wellen, who was named the game’s MVP, scored 10 of her game-high 19 points during the third quarter and also added nine rebounds. Wellen also had four of the Bulldogs’ eight 3-pointers.
Highland also got 12 points and five assists from freshman guard Ellie Brown, a double-double from Alex LaPorta with 10 points and 12 rebounds, and seven points and a great defensive effort from Portell.
“She kept (Troeckler) way under her average, and we all tried to help out on her, so we did really well on her,” LaPorta said. “Rece did a great job, and she is extremely fast and never gets tired. So yeah, she is the right girl to put on (Troeckler). It was a great team effort today. We’re building up our teamwork, making the extra pass and doing everything that we can to get ready for the postseason. That’s ultimately when we want to be playing our best basketball.”
The teams battled down the stretch as Alaira Tyus nailed a 3-pointer to tie it 48-48 with 2:13 remaining. After both teams committed turnovers, Highland’s Hayley Taylor was fouled, and she sank the second of two free throws with 15.6 seconds remaining to give the Bulldogs a 49-48 lead. It was her only point of the game but it put her team on top for good.
“I was nervous at first but my teammates helped calm me down and told me, ‘It’s just like practice, and you can do it; you’re a good free-throw shooter,’” Taylor said. “So, it was good to hear their confidence in me, and that helped me pull through. Our defense was a really big aspect in the win. We really had to shut down their 3-point shooters and keep a watch on Troeckler.”
Thinking Troeckler might attempt the potential game-winning shot, the Bulldogs watched as CM’s Kaylee Eaton let a 3-pointer fly from the corner. The shot was off the mark with about three seconds remaining. Highland’s Emmy Nyquist then sealed the win with two free throws.
Troeckler missed a running 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have forced overtime.
“Somebody said something about an upset. I don’t think this was an upset,” Arbuthnot said. “It’s one of those where we’re two good teams ... Today it was our turn.”
The loss meant the end of a beard Civic Memorial coach Jonathan Denney had been growing since the start of the season. He agreed not to shave it until the team’s first defeat.
“I really didn’t anticipate going 16 games,” Denney said. “They made more plays down the stretch than we did. They’re a great team, and we knew that coming in. There’s no excuses. I think they just outplayed us today.”
Anna Hall led the Eagles with 12 points. Eaton had 10.
Highland 52, Breese Central 39
The Cougars were pesky and scratched and clawed to stay within striking distance throughout the first half, only trailing 27-22 at the break during the game on Jan. 5 at HHS.
Wellen scored a game-high 26 points on 10-for-14 shooting from the floor, highlighted by going 5-for-8 from behind the arc. She also was the game’s top thief with seven steals to go along with three boards and one assist.
She and Portell combined to score 10 points and Brown threw in four markers while the Bulldogs showed their teeth on the defensive end by holding Central to seven points in the third quarter en route to stretching the lead out to 42-29 heading into the final eight minutes of play.
The Cougars would get no closer than nine.
“Central was well prepared. They came in took away some of the things we like to do and have been having success at,” Arbuthnot said. “That’s a tribute to (coach) Nathan (Rueter) no doubt. In the first half, I’m not going to say we didn’t play well because I think a lot of of it had to do with how well they played. I was happy with our kids as far as we had 12 turnovers and we had a good defensive effort. We forced 20 turnovers.
“Offensively, I don’t hink it was us not executing, but it was more about what they did in taking things away. So, a lot of the credit goes to them. They are getting better.”
Faye Meissner led Central with 14 points.
LaPorta ranked first in the game in rebounds (13), assists (four), while she also contributed four steals and four points.
Also chipping in Highland’s victory were: Brown with eight points, five assists, one rebound and one steal; Portell with seven points, four boards and one assist; Nyquist with five points, one rebound, one assist and one steal; and senior Abby Melosi with one point, one rebound and one steal.