The Highland Lady Bulldogs went 3-1 and finished with an exclamation point after shredding Okawville 60-33 Friday night to bag third place at the 40th annual Mascoutah Invitational Girls Basketball Tournament.
First, on Wednesday, Dec. 27, Highland (11-4) did not let an 8:30 a.m. tip-off slow it down, trampling the Centralia Orphans, 49-15, for the third time in its first 12 games.
Next, in a late-morning start on Thursday, the Bulldogs gnawed on the Carbondale Terriers, 70-32.
Then in the semifinals, in another late-morning tip on Friday, Highland fell behind by double digits in the first quarter but battled back to stay within striking distance before losing 65-55 to a very hot Belleville East squad. The Lancers entered the tourney’s final four having rolled to eight wins in a row.
Later Friday evening in the third-place game, the Bulldogs soared by the Okawville Rockets from beginning to end in a 27-point thumping.
Highland sophomore guard Ellie Brown was named to the Mascoutah All-Tournament First Team after leading the Bulldogs with 60 points in the four games, including a team tournament-high 19 in the 38-point blowout of Carbondale.
“I️ thought we did a great job, as a team, being prepared for every game,” said Brown, who leads the Bulldogs with a 14.6 scoring average. “Even in our 8:30 a.m. game against Centralia, everyone came ready to play and contribute. We had a hard-fought loss to a really good Belleville East team, but we learned a lot about the heart that we have as a team, and it showed that we are maturing. It was also very important for us to be ready to play that night against Okawville and put the loss out of our minds. I️ definitely thought we did that and we also got some great minutes from our freshman post players.
“Ultimately, we showed some great signs of growth and maturity in this tournament, and I️ could not be more proud of how hard my teammates played.”
For junior guard Emmy Nyquist, it was a great tournament for the team on several different fronts.
“It was fun to see different, but still tough, competition,” said Nyquist, who averages just under 10 points per game. “Lots of people stepped up and had great minutes, which shows everyone is improving. I️ think some of the best things about this team is that, on the court, we can all score. But off the court, we’re all close friends with each other throughout the program. Hopefully, we’ll be playing our best game in the postseason.”
Senior guard Rece Portell said the team is learning how to win games against tough competition.
“We have to play hard every possession and along the way we have learned how to play better together as an entire team,” said Portell, who is second ins scoring at a 11.1-point clip. “Seems like we are finally beginning to mesh. And we have people stepping up and hitting big shots.”
Belleville East (10-6) had its eight-game winning streak snapped in the championship game with a 65-57 loss to Southwestern Conference rival O’Fallon (13-1), which won its first ever Mascoutah title.
In addition, Breese Central Cougars (13-2) stung the Nashville Hornettes 40-19 to capture fifth place and the Mater Dei Knights (11-5) carved up the Althoff Crusaders 58-23 to take the consolation championship.
Joining Highland’s Brown on the all-tournament first team were O’Fallon’s Sydney Thurwalker, Belleville East’s Kaylah Rainey and B’Aunce Carter and Central’s Faye Meissner.
Highland 60, Okawville 33
The Bulldogs got all 13 players playing time and 10 of them numbering in the scoring column.
Brown was the game’s high scorer with 16 points and Highland’s only double-digit scorer as she helped her team get out to a quick start.
Nyquist missed double figures by the narrowest of margins with nine points.
The Bulldogs doubled up Okawville 18-9 in the first quarter before shooting down the Rockets 12-3 in the second period to take a commanding 18-point lead at the halftime break.
After both teams battled to an 11-11 draw, Highland cranked up the intensity to overtake the Rockets 19-10 in the fourth frame.
Audrey Jansen paced Okawville (12-3) with 11 points.
Also scoring for the Bulldogs were sophomore Ashlyn Klucker with eight points, Portell with six, senior Lauren Baer with six, freshmen Bella LaPorta and Taylor Kesner each with four, sophomores Megan Kronk and Kirsten Taylor each with three, and junior Mae Riffel with two.
Belleville East 65, Highland 55
The Lancers used full-court pressure to force Highland into several first-quarter turnovers and run out to an 18-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
However, Highland would battle back and close the deficit to just 30-27 at halftime. The Bulldogs pulled to within one point, 42-41, with 2:37 left in the third period, but were never able to overtake Belleville East.
The Lancers’ pressure defense helped Highland commit 21 turnovers for the game.
Belleville East placed three players in double figures. B’Aunce Carter led the Lancers with 24 points. Kaylah Rainey had 18, and Jailyn McClenny had 11 for East.
Nyquist and Riffel both hit double digits for Highland. Nyquist was the top scorer for the Bulldogs with 18 points, including a couple key 3-pointers to keep the Bulldogs in the game.
Riffel added 13 points for Highland, and Ellie Brown chipped in nine.
Portell struggled shooting the ball en route to finishing with six points, but the senior guard led the Bulldogs in both rebounds (eight) and assists (six). Nyquist also had three assists, two assists and two rebounds.
Highland also received six points, two rebounds and one assist from Kronk and three points, five boards and two assists from Baer.
Highland 70, Carbondale 32
After a tight first quarter, the Bulldogs took charge after ratcheting up the intensity to win the final three quarters by an ascending margin — 16-8, 20-9 and 19-3.
Highland took care of the ball incredibly, racking up a team season-high 28 assists while committing a season-low two turnovers.
Brown pumped in a game-best and team tournament-high 19 points and Kronk tossed in a varsity career-best 15 points.
“I think we just came out ready to play again,” said Portell, who shared game highs with her teammates in both assists (four) and steals (three) to go with three points. “It seemed like defensively everybody was ready to go and aware of where the ball was. Again everybody came off the bench and gave solid minutes. Megan Kronk hit some big shots and contributed defensively. Ellie executed offensively too. But almost every player had points and played hard defensively. It was a nice team win.”
Again, all 13 players logged minutes, with 11 of them scoring points.
Also chipping in were Nyquist with eight points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals; Riffel with four points, four boards, two assists and one steal; Baer with four points, two rebounds, two assists and one steal; Kesner with four points, two boards and one assist; Kirsten Taylor with four points and one steal; and sophomore Madison Clarke with three points and one assist.
Highland 49, Centralia 15
The new-look Highland Bulldogs continued their winning ways at the 40th annual Mascoutah Girls Basketball Invitational Tournament on Wednesday at Mascoutah High School.
Sophomore Ellie Brown scored 16 points and dished out a game-high six assists, while senior Rece Portell added 12 points and a game-best seven steals to go with three assists and three rebounds as Highland led from start-to-finish in a 49-15 win over the Centralia Annies.
Highland (9-3), which broke a two-game losing streak, jumped to a 16-4 lead in the first quarter as it ran past Centralia for the third time this season and into a quarterfinal game Thursday against another South Seven Conference opponent — the Carbondale Terriers.
“I don’t think that’s ever happened where we’ve played and beaten a team three times in our first 12 games. We’re trying some new things and I’m sure they (Centralia) are as well,” said Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot, whose team logged 26 steals and 30 rebounds. “I was happy with the way we came out. I thought we did a good job of coming out early ready to play.”
Portell admitted that the two straight losses were rough on the team and they worked extremely hard in practice for a week to come out and open the tournament with a statement.
“Even with it being 8:30 in the morning, every single player came ready to play,” Portell said. “Today was a huge team effort with tips and steals from so many different players. Multiple times we looked up the floor in transition and I think we shared the ball well. Basically though, I think we all knew that we needed to come out with lots of energy and get the job done. Also people like Megan Kronk came off the bench and contributed defensively right away. It wasn’t just the five who started this game, it was the entire team. We need that to win games.”
And on this day, Brown and Portell were ready to go despite the 8:30 a.m. starting time. Teaming with junior Emmy Nyquist in the Bulldogs’ three-guard offense, Brown and Portell got Highland running with 12 first quarter points.
“We are very much guard-oriented at this time. Ellie, Emmy and Rece work well together. They look for each other and share the basketball well,” Arbuthnot said. “We are looking for some players to step up and rebound for us. Against some of the bigger teams we’ve played, we have given up eight or nine offensive rebounds. That is way too many.”
Also contributing to the win for Highland were Klucker with six points, four assists, four steals and two rebounds; Nyquist with five points, four assists, four steals and three boards; Riffel with four points, six rebounds, two assists and one steal; Baer with two points, three boards and one steal; Kronk with two points, six rebounds, two assists and one steal; and junior Lexi Taylor with two points.