Although the middle was a bit rough, the Highland High boys basketball team started and finished strong en route to taking ninth place at the 59th annual Mater Dei Christmas Basketball Tournament.
Something crazy typically happens on the first day of the Mater Dei Christmas Tournament, and Tuesday was no exception as the Bulldogs caused the crazy just two games into the tournament.
Highland junior Stephen Schniers was fouled on a desperation 3-pointer and sank the final two of three free throws with 1.5 seconds remaining as the 10th-seeded Bulldogs shocked previously unbeaten Okawville, Class 1A’s top-ranked team and the tourney’s top-seeded team, 37-36.
Things did not go as well after that for Highland as it dropped its next three games: 63-48 later on Tuesday night to Breese Central, 54-36 to Mascoutah on Wednesday, and then a 52-42 setback to Briarcrest Christian (Eads, Tenn.) to wrap up pool play on Thursday.
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But the Bulldogs (3-10) bounced back strong to open the final day on Friday, toppling Metro-East Lutheran 50-42 and salvaging ninth place and relegating the Knights from Edwardsville to last place in the annual 10-team tournament.
Highland 50, Metro-East Lutheran 42
The Bulldogs used a 20-0 run to take charge of the game over the Knights (4-10), who have dropped nine in a row.
Holding a precarious one-point lead lead just past the halfway point of the second quarter, Highland reeled off 20 consecutive points to open up a commanding 34-13 lead early in the third period.
With the score 14-13 in favor of the Bulldogs, sophomore Stephen Torre helped spark the surge with a block on one end, and then followed it up with a layup at the other end off a nice assist from fellow sophomore Sam LaPorta.
Sophomore Brady Feldmann then scored the next four points. Next, Torre followed with a stickback, Feldmann canned his second 3-pointer, and sophomore Jake Kruse hit a pullup jumper to cap off the first half with a 14-0 run that saw Highland carry a 27-13 advantage into halftime.
The Bulldogs were not done as LaPorta and Kruse greeted the third quarter with a quick 7-0 spurt with. LaPorta punctuated the 20 straight points with an exclamation point by throwing down a two-handed dunk.
A short time later, Schniers scored off an nice baseline move, and fellow junior Jonathan Dickman converted a steal into a layup as Highland grabbed its largest lead of the game at 38-15.
The Knights committed 15 turnovers in the contest.
LaPorta and metro-east’s Noah Coddington shared game-high honors, scoring a baker’s dozen apiece.
Also marking in the scoring column for the Bulldogs were Torre with 10 points, Schniers with nine points, Feldmann and Kruse each with eight points, and Dickan with his two points.
Briarcrest Christian 52, Highland 42
Briarcrest got 18 points and seven rebounds from Cedric Henderson and 12 points from Lucian Murdock in a victory over the Bulldogs. Highland, which lost three straight at the tourney after stunning top-seeded Okawville on the opening day, was led by Schniers with 18 points.
Mascoutah 54, Highland 36
Mascoutah never trailed, hitting five 3-pointers in the opening period to take a 15-11 lead. The Indians led by 10 at halftime, but the Bulldogs opened the third quarter on a 12-3 run to pull within one.
Sophomore Malik Green took over the game, hitting three layups and a 3-pointer in succession to put the Indians back up 40-27, and he also banked in a trey at the buzzer to end the third quarter.
Green led all scorers with 21 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the floor, with teammate Blake Weiss adding 10 points and Jake Steward just missed double figures with nine points.
Feldman led the Bulldogs with nine points, with Kruse, Schniers and LaPorta adding six points each.
Shooting played a huge role in the outcome of the game. The Indians shot very well at 51.4 percent (18-for-35), while Highland struggled mightily at 34.1 percent (15-for-44).
Also scoring for the Bulldogs were Torre (four points), junior Elliott Prott (three) and junior Luke Landmann (two).
Breese Central 63, Highland 48
The Bulldogs battled tooth and nail with the Cougars throughout the first half, but Central took control near the midway point of the third quarter, and Highland could not get closer than eight the rest of the way.
The Bulldogs stayed right with the favored Cougars throughout the first 16 minutes and led through the first half of the opening quarter and then reclaimed the lead at 21-20 halfway through the second quarter on a old-fashioned three-point play from Schniers.
Highland was still within 31-26 at the half.
But after burying three 3-pointers in the opening half, Jack Strieker drilled four triples in the third quarter to help Central build a 51-39 by the end of period.
Strieker finished with a game-high 23 points and connected on 7-of-8 shots from behind the arc and went 8-for-10 overall.
Overall, the Cougars hit 11-of-18 trifectas and shot 66 percent (23-for-35).
Highland also shot the ball well at 50 percent (18-for-36).
Also reaching double figures for the Central were Tyler Joest and Kolby Schulte with 15 and 11 points, respectively. Joest hit 7-of-10 field goals.
Feldmann paced the Bulldogs with 17 points after going 7-for-12 from the field, and Schniers joined him in double digits with 13 points.
In addition, LaPorta chipped in six points and four rebounds
Highland 37, Okawville 36
Okawville entered the game 9-0 and ranked first in the Class 1A state poll, while Highland began tourney play having lost seven of its eight games.
“It was crazy,” Highland coach Brian Perkes said.
Okawville had a one-point lead when leading scorer and University of Evansville recruit Noah Frederking went to the free-throw line with 7.3 seconds remaining. Frederking missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity, giving the Bulldogs one more chance.
After he was fouled, Schniers had to wait a while to step to the foul line while the officials had a discussion. Schniers missed the first free throw, but made the final two, and the Bulldogs held on for a huge tourney upset in Game 2 of the day.
“I was shaking,” said Schniers, who really had to work hard just to get his desperation shot off and even then wasn’t sure a foul would be called. “That was the most pressure I’ve been under in quite a while. I wasn’t too worried. I knew I had three of them, so I only needed one to tie it up, two to win.”
Perkes, in his first year coaching at Highland after coaching and playing previously for Mater Dei, was asked about the advice he gave Schniers before shooting the free throws.
“Make them,” Perkes said. “Stephen’s a good player; he hit a big shot against (Civic Memorial) that sent the game into overtime, and we were fortunate enough to win that game. If we get the ball in Stephen’s hands, you feel pretty good about the outcome.”
Schniers led Highland with 12 points and nine rebounds while Stephen Torre had eight points and Brady Feldman added seven points. The Bulldogs found great success with a zone defense throughout the day that at times included at least one and sometimes two players chasing Frederking.
Frederking began the day averaging 24.8 points and needing 11 points to break the all-time tournament scoring record. He was limited to eight points on 4-of-12 shooting. Shane Ganz led the Rockets with 11 points, but Okawville could never find its range from the 3-point arc.
The Rockets hit only six of 27 three-point tries and managed only two field goals and 10 points during the entire second half.
Schniers also tied the game 35-35 with 2:45 remaining after Frederking had drained a 3-pointer. The team traded turnovers before Frederking went to the foul line with 7.3 seconds remaining.
Perkes said the Highland defensive game plan totally revolved around keeping a close eye on Frederking and Ganz. It began with a triangle-and-two and later morphed into a tradition zone.
“We did that most of the first half and then in the second half we played a 1-2-2 zone, but we told them to be aware of where Ganz and Frederking were at,” Perkes said. “As the game dwindled down we felt like those other kids would be less likely to shoot when the game was on the line. Credit our kids, they played their butts off.”