After losing in the sectional championship to Highland a year ago, the Civic Memorial Eagles were not going to let it happen again.
Civic Memorial roared out to leads of 14-0 and 22-3 Thursday, then held off a frenetic Highland comeback down the stretch for a 61-52 victory in the championship game of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Class 3A Waterloo Sectional.
“Ever since that loss last year it’s been in the back of our minds, pushing us every time we go for a workout, every time we have practice — building up for this moment,” said Civic Memorial senior and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville recruit Allie Troeckler, the Eagles’ all-time scoring leader, who finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and three steals. “You could tell in that first quarter how bad we wanted it. That’s all it was: Pure energy and pure desire to get this win.”
Civic Memorial, which was ranked third in the state after extending its winning streak to 14 games, ended Highland’s 21-game winning streak as well as the Bulldogs’ season. After Highland swept all four meetings last season including the sectional title, the Eagles (31-3) won three of four meetings this season before going on to fall 44-39 to Rochester (31-3) Monday night in the Springfield Super-Sectional at the University of Illinois-Springfield.
Civic Memorial coach Jonathan Denney hoped to mentally transport his team back to the first meeting with Highland this season. The Eagles jumped out to a 29-19 halftime lead at the Salem Thanksgiving Tournament and won 51-39.
“We put ourselves in that locker room and how hungry we were early in the season to play them for the first time,” said Denney, whose team had knocked off Highland in three straight regional finals before losing in the sectional last year.
Kaylee Eaton had 11 of her 16 points in the second half to help hold off the Highland comeback. Alaira Tyus added nine points, five assists and four rebounds for the Eagles, who shot 47 percent (17-for-36) from the field.
Highland’s first quarter included missing six of seven shots, committing six turnovers and displaying a general uneasiness not typically seen from the fourth-ranked Bulldogs (29-4).
Coach Mike Arbuthnot finally saw his team rally in the second half, but Civic Memorial’s big runs at the start of each half — 14-0 in the first and 13-2 in the second — proved to be the difference.
Highland trailed 26-17 at halftime, but despite an emotional comeback attempt, could get no closer than seven points the rest of the night and Civic Memorial took its largest lead at 20 points, and although the Bulldogs could not climb all the way out of the hole, they fought all the way to the final buzzer.
The Eagles defense forced 15 of the Bulldogs’ 25 turnovers in the first half.
“It was one of those to where it just escalated,” Arbuthnot said. “Heck, I needed 10 timeouts, and I don’t think it would have helped. When you went into halftime down by nine, we felt really fortunate.”
It was uncharacteristic for Highland to only have four players register in the scoring column, led by senior guard Madison Wellen, who closed out her career with 25 points. Junior guard Rece Portell added 13 points and senior forward Alex LaPorta had 11 points for the Bulldogs.
Additionally, Highland guard Ellie Brown finished a strong freshman campaign with three points.
Even though the Bulldogs will not be making the trip as a team to compete at this weekend’s IHSA Class 3A Girls State Basketball Tournament at Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State University in Normal, Portell and Wellen will take the trip to compete in the Three-Point Showdown after advancing through the sectional with Portell drilling 10-of-15 3-pointers and Wellen knocking down eight shots from behind the arc.
Highland 69, Carterville 43
The Bulldogs crushed Carterville 69-43 and Civic Memorial blew past Murphysboro 60-39, setting up a fourth showdown this season with their seasons on the line while also setting up a second straight sectional final rematch between the Mississippi Valley Conference girls basketball rival powers in the championship of the IHSA Class 3A Waterloo Sectional.
Highland ran its winning streak to 21 games, while Civic Memorial won 13 straight.
“I guess it’s a matchup everybody’s been talking about,” Arbuthnot said. “We’ve kind of stayed away from it just because it’s a long season, and a lot of things happen. It should be a lot of fun. We respect each other, and I guess this is the way it’s supposed to be.”
Civic Memorial defeated Mississippi Valley Conference rival Highland 57-45 and 58-53 in the first two meetings this season before Highland won 51-48 in the third contest.
Thursday’s sectional final is a rematch of the 2016 sectional final, which Highland won 49-42 over the Eagles in Benton on the way to the state tournament.
“It’s a lot of fun; it’s a great rivalry,” Arbuthnot said. “I know they’ll be ready to play, and hey, it’s for a sectional championship. It couldn’t be any better.”
LaPorta racked up team highs in all of the following statistics: 21 points (on 9-of-17 field goals), nine rebounds (three offensive), five steals and four assists in the Carterville win.
LaPorta said beating Civic Memorial in the previous meeting could help the Bulldogs gain an edge.
“That gives us confidence for sure, but we knew ... every single game we played against them, we knew that we could have won,” LaPorta said. “It’s just a matter of executing down the stretch, and we’re confident we can do that (Thursday).”
Also for the Bulldogs, Wellen also hit double digits with 13 points.
“We’re a take-it-one-game-at-a-time team, but it was hard not to think about what would happen if we won this game,” Wellen said. “The fourth round, this is the most important one. All those other ones kind of led up to this.”
LaPorta shredded Carterville (27-4) inside, scoring 15 points in the first half.
“Alex is important for us all the time.” Arbuthnot said. “When we see that we’ve got opportunities to get her the ball, we’ll give it to her. We felt like going into this thing that we had a mismatch in there, and we were going to try to attack it as much as we could.”
Troeckler averages more than 23 points, but Civic Memorial’s all-time leading scorer was held to only 11 points in Highland’s 61-58 win Jan. 7.
“She’s such a great player; we’ve got to be able to contain her,” Arbuthnot said. “You’ve kind of got to pick your poison — either you give up the 3s, or are you going to stop Troeckler? Obviously going in we’re going to try to do both.”
Also chalking up numbers for the Bulldogs were Portell with eight points, five rebounds, three assists and one steal; Brown with six points, three assists and one rebound; senior Abby Melosi with six points, two boards and one assist; senior Hayley Taylor with four points, five rebounds, two assists and one steal; senior Alisse Koishor with four points, four boards, one assist and one steal; junior Lauren Baer with three points and three boards; and sophomore Kayla Eads and freshman Megan Kronk (one rebound) each with two points.