Senior guard Madison Wellen scored 16 of her game-best 26 points in the first half and the defending champion Highland Bulldogs broke open a close game with a 14-2 scoring spurt midway through the second quarter in a 57-39 quarterfinal round win over the O’Fallon Panthers.
Highland (10-3) led just 17-12 after one quarter, but with Wellen, a 5-9 guard, and 6-foot senior forward Alex LaPorta combining to score 13 of Highland’s 15 points in the second quarter, the Bulldogs lead was 32-18 at halftime.
The Bulldogs then blitzed the Panthers with an 18-4 third quarter to put the game out of reach at 50-22 heading into the fourth frame.
LaPorta contributed a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds for Highland, which went on to defeat Belleville East 59-44 in first of two semifinals. The Bulldogs will face Mater Dei in the championship game at 7 p.m.
“We knew O’Fallon was going to be a tough team and they play very fast, so we knew our turnovers would have to be kept to a minimum,” said Wellen, who also had a double-double after pulling down 10 rebounds. “Once we adjusted to the pace of the game, we were able to control what we did both offensively and defensively. We had a really strong third quarter and I think that made a statement in the game. We knew O’Fallon is a well coached and well disciplined team and they can be very dangerous. We definitely came out and made a statement today.”
Also numbering in the scoring column for the Bulldogs were senior center Hayley Taylor with six points, junior guard Rece Portell with five points, freshman guard Ellie Brown with three points and sophomore guard Emmy Nyquist with two points.
Highland 48, Breese Central 22
After a lackluster first half, Wellen made sure her team’s stay in the winner’s bracket of the Mascoutah Girls Holiday Invitational Tournament wouldn’t be a short one.
An honorable mention all-state selection a year ago, Wellen connected on 4-of-5 three-point attempts to key a second-half run that had the Bulldogs run past the Cougars in a first-round game on Tuesday.
Ranked fifth in the first Class 3A state poll, Highland used a stingy defense to hold the Cougars scoreless for the first 11 minutes and built an 18-6 lead at halftime. But when Wellen and Brown heated up in the third quarter, Central was in trouble.
Wellen scored 12 of her 20 points in the period, and Brown added a pair of three-point baskets for Highland which expanded its lead to 41-16 after three quarters.
Central, which won the tournament title in both 2014 and 2015, would get no closer.
“We hadn’t played for a week and you can only simulate so much in practice, but I thought we came out and played pretty well. We were a little sluggish early, but that’s to be expected,” Arbuthnot said. “I thought we really picked it up in the third quarter.”
But in a rematch of the 2015 title game won by Highland, the outcome was never in any doubt.
The Cougars didn’t score their first point until junior Faye Meissner hit a free throw with 4:59 left in the second quarter. Sophomore Allison Fehrmann then connected on a 15-foot jumper to cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 10-3.
But that’s as close as Central would get.
Wellen, who went 6-for-9 from behind the arc for the game and 7-for-11 overall, then hit a 3-point jumper and LaPorta followed with an offensive rebound and basket as Highland widened the halftime margin.
Central coach Nathan Rueter, a Highland native, couldn’t fault the Cougars’ defense.
“Honestly, I thought we played hard, and I thought we did a good job on the defensive end of the floor the entire game,” Rueter said. “We just haven’t had anybody step up on the offensive end of the floor. It doesn’t matter how good of defense you play though when you only score 22 points in four quarters of basketball.”
Wellen and Brown went to work in the third quarter, combining for six 3-point field goals and 18 points as the Bulldogs lead grew to 41-16 after three quarters.
“Our bench really picked us up, then Madison (Wellen) and Ellie (Brown) were able to knock down some 3s in the third quarter and get us going in the third quarter,” Arbuthnot said. “I was concerned because Central is so well coached and they had been playing so much better in the last couple of weeks.”
Brown added 10 points and dished out five assists, while LaPorta, the St. Louis area’s top rebounder, averaging 15.9 rebounds per game, grabbed 14 rebounds to go with nine points, three assists and three steals.
Abbie Horstmann led Central with six points.
Also scoring for the Bulldogs were Nyquist with five points, Taylor with three points and senior Abby Melosi with one point.