The team’s first three-game winning streak of the season, all against conference opponents, helped the Highland Bulldogs clinch a share of the Mississippi Valley Conference championship.
First on Friday, Feb. 10, Highland traveled to Waterloo and won the battle of the Bulldogs 55-47.
Next on Tuesday, Feb. 14, HHS sophomore forward Sam LaPorta scored on a putback with one second on the clock in overtime to help the Bulldogs nip the Triad Knights 56-54.
Then on Friday, Highland racked up its best eight minutes of the season with a 28-point explosion in the second quarter to rout the visiting Jerseyville Panthers 55-31 and clinch a share of the MVC crown for the Bulldogs (9-17) at 7-2 prior to tonight’s road game at Civic Memorial to finish off conference play for HHS.
“To get a share is the first step but we still control our own destiny,” Highland first-year coach Brian Perkes said. “A couple of weeks ago, we needed a little help and we got a little help when Waterloo beat Triad. And then we took care of business here at home and it’s our first three-game winning streak of the season. It feels good and our kids are pretty giddy right now and it’s good to see. We want to go in to CM and beat them and win the conference outright because we don’t want to share it,”
Overall, Highland, which aims to lock up the conference championship outright Monday at CM, has won six league games in a row after starting 1-2 against MVC competition.
CM and Triad were both tied for second at 5-3.
“That’s exciting, especially for a young team,” Perkes said of his team’s six-game conference winning streak. “And we still have a lot of ceiling left because this team can still grow and improve, and that is very exciting to see and be a part of.”
The Bulldogs will wrap up the regular season with a make-up non-conference game Tuesday night at Columbia.
HHS opens the playoffs next week as the Benton Sectional’s sixth seed and will first play against MVC rival Mascoutah at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the quarterfinal of the Illinois High School Association Class 3A Mater Dei Regional. The winner will advance to face third-seeded Mater Dei at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 1.
The Mater Dei Regional also features No. 2 seed Cahokia, which will first take onthe winner of No. 8 Freeburg and No. 9 Waterloo at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28.
Highland 55, Jerseyville 31
The Bulldogs followed up a nine-point first quarter with their best quarter of the season in which they erupted for a season-best 28 second-quarter points.
After holding a precarious 9-8 lead after one quarter of play, Highland made 11 field goals in the second period — six of them coming from behind the 3-point arc. The 11 baskets was just one shy of its field-goal output for the other three quarters combined.
Sophomore Jake Kruse drilled three 3-pointers in the second stanza and pumped in 14 of his game-high 17 points in the first half while fellow sophomores Brady Feldmann and Sam LaPorta also each threw in seven points and one 3-pointer in the second period to help the Bulldogs carry an insurmountable 37-16 advantage in to the halftime break and never looked back.
Kruse went 5-for-7 from behind the arc and 6-for-8 overall. Feldmann scored 16 points on 7-of-11 field goals to go with five assists, two rebounds and two steals while LaPorta contributed nine points, six rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks.
As a team, the Bulldos shot 55 percent (23-for-42) overall and 47.4 percent (9-for-19) from behind the arc.
“The reason we were making all of those shots was that we had good ball movement and we had open shots,” Perkes said. “I don’t know what we shot in the first half but we were on fire and it was incredible. It was fun to watch and the kids did a great job. We had good looks because our kids were moving the ball, we were cutting and we did what we needed to do. And when you make shots, it solves a lot of problems...We’re being rewarded for our hard work right now.”
Also for Highland, junior Cameron Altadonna scored seven points and had one rebound and junior Stephen Schniers logged six points, three assists, two boards and one block.
Jerseyville was led by junior center Lucas Ross with 10 points.
Highland 56, Triad 54 OT
With the game on the line Tuesday, no one was stopping LaPorta.
LaPorta grabbed the rebound of a missed shot, then stuck it back in for the game-winner with one second remaining in overtime as the Highland Bulldogs stunned Mississippi Valley Conference rival Triad 56-54 to remain in a tie for first place in the league.
LaPorta knifed his way through two Triad players to grab the rebound of a missed 18-foot shot by Schniers. The 6-foot-3 LaPorta grabbed the loose ball, then shot it over Triad’s Beau Barbour into the net as he finished with 12 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.
“I was trying to grab rebounds the whole game because that’s what I love to do,” LaPorta said. “When I saw the shot go up, the first thing in my mind was to grab the rebound. (Schniers) hit a buzzer-beater earlier in the year, and I thought it was going to be the same thing.”
This time it was LaPorta’s turn to be the hero. He missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw opportunity with the game tied and 26.2 seconds remaining in regulation, but this time made good on his chance.
“He’s an athlete making a play; that’s all that is,” Perkes said. “He jumps better than anybody out here, and he went out and made the play. I think he felt bad about missing that free throw at the end (of regulation). He’s a gamer, and he’s got a very even keel about his demeanor. That really helps him in key situations.”
LaPorta said the Bulldogs have come a long way since the beginning of the season.
“We started the season really immature, didn’t know exactly what we were doing without too many players with experience coming back,” he said. “We had to learn the process and here we are now.”
Highland won despite a 28-point explosion from Triad senior guard Noah Moss.
Schniers led Highland with 13 points, while LaPorta added his dozen points and Stephen Torre also reached double figures with 10 points.
The Knights also got 10 points from 6-2 junior Beau Barbour.
Also producing points for the Bulldogs were Kruse and fellow sophomore Jon Dickman each with eight points and Feldmann with five points.
Moss scored his team’s first 13 points in the fourth quarter, but Highland stayed close thanks to four 3-pointers down the stretch. Two came from Schniers, and Jake Kruse, who scored all eight of his points in the fourth quarter, sent the game to overtime on a 3-pointer with 2:35 remaining.
Moss got off a forced three at the buzzer that was off the mark, sending the game to overtime.
Triad coach Josh Hunt said Highland’s big plays in the second half were difficult to overcome. The Knights led 49-43 with 3:23 remaining.
“We had a six-point lead, and I really felt comfortable,” Hunt said. “They hit a big 3; we missed a wide-open 3 that I liked; then they came down and hit another big 3 to tie it. You’ve got to give their kids credit. They battled all night, and they were resilient.
“They made more plays than we did, unfortunately.”
Highland 55, Waterloo 47
On Friday, Feb. 10, HHS outscored Waterloo 16-11 to parlay a narrow 25-21 halftime lead into a nine-point advantage heading to the final eight minutes of play.
Highland’s defense was the key in the battle of the Bulldogs on this night as it held the host school to six points in the first quarter en route to grabbing an eight-point lead and never relinquishing its lead.
HHS’ defense also helped muzzle the Waterloo Bulldogs to just 30 percent (15-for-50) shooting from the field. Waterloo shot a dismal 15.8 percent (3-for-19) from behind the 3-point arc.
Conversely, Highland connected on 46.7 percent (21-for-45) of its field goals, including drilling half (5-for-10) of its triples.
In addition, HHS outrebounded Waterloo 35-30.
Highland again placed three players in double digits. Dickman led the way with 12 points and Schniers and Kruse followed close behind each with 10 points. Schniers and Kruse also both grabbed seven boards and handed out three and two assists, respectively.
LaPorta scored eight points while he also shared game-high honors in rebounds with 10 and dished out a game-best five assists.
Feldmann barely missed double figures with nine points and also contributed four assists, three rebounds and two steals.
For Waterloo, Ben Huels led the way with 15 points and 10 rebounds while Griffin Lenhardt added 11 points and Ross Schrader had nine points.
Also for HHS, Torre added four points, eight boards and two assists and junior Cameron Altadoona had two points.