Highland girls basketball coach Mike Arbuthnot said while the team’s defensive effort has been there on a consistent basis, his team has had some problems on the offensive end.
“The defensive effort has been outstanding,” he said. “The kids have been playing hard an buying into the defense. Effort-wise, I couldn’t ask for anything more from them. I am proud of their effort and we’re getting everything they can give to us. They really are doing the things I need them to do defensively. But we struggle at times to score. We need to find that third scorer. No matter if it is a post player or a guard, we’re looking for that third scorer.”
The two that have answered the bell all season have been sophomore guard Ellie Brown and senior guard Rece Portell, who entered Thursday’s home game against Triad averaging 13 and 11.3 points, respectively.
“Those two have been pretty consistent all year,” Arbuthnot said.
Scoring was not a problem against Triad as Highland had nine players register in the scoring column to snap a three-game slide in emphatic fashion with a 72-39 drubbing of the visiting Knights.
Brown was in the zone from long range, knocking down five 3-pointers to notch game-high honors with 18 points.
Freshman post player Bella LaPorta, who has consistently been providing the muscle on the boards since she has been earning heavier workload, was the only other player in the game to reach double figures in scoring after finishing with a dozen points.
The duo helped Highland (15-9) build a 42-12 halftime bulge, with Brown pouring in 12 first-half points and LaPorta dropping in eight before the break.
The Bulldogs led 17-6 after the first quarter but cranked it up in the second quarter, with Brown bagging three treys in the period to help the Bulldogs extend their lead to an insurmountable 30-point margin.
Former Highland standout Katie Hempen was honored at halftime with a shadow box of her autographed Arizona State University jersey that will be displayed in the gym. Hempen was an all-state performer who graduated in 2012 and went on to excel at Arizona State University as well as play for Team USA and just finished a season playing overseas in Greece.
Things got no better for Triad in the second half as Highland’s biggest lead was a 44-point margin at 70-26.
Also getting in on the act of scoring for the Bulldogs were junior Mae Riffel with nine points, sophomore Megan Kronk with eight points, Portell with seven points, freshman Taylor Kesner with six points, senior Lauren Baer with five points, junior Emmy Nyquist with four points, junior Lexi Taylor with two points, and sophomore Kirsten Taylor with one point.
The dominant victory helped ease some of the sting from a night earlier when the host Civic Memorial Eagles toppled the four-time defending conference champion Bulldogs for the second time in five days and for the third time overall this season.
Now after sweeping Highland in league play, CM has all but locked up the MVC crown for itself for the fifth time in seven years while handing Highland its third loss in a row.
The Eagles are 23-2 overall and ranked fifth in the latest Class 3A state poll after winning 13 of their past 14 games.
CM is now 6-0 in the league and firmly on track to cap off a perfect 10-0 sweep of the MVC for the first time since the Eagles did it in the 2012-13 campaign. CM has a commanding two-game conference lead over four-time defending champ Highland (5-2) and Jerseyville (4-2) with four games remaining on the Eagles’ conference docket.
“They have a two-game lead on us now and my goal right now is to go 8-2 in conference,” Arbuthnot said. “You know a couple of years ago 8-2 won the conference for us. Obviously, the caliber of ball clubs in the conference after us and CM steps down a little bit.
“We’ve got six games left before postseason and I don’t think anybody wants to see us in postseason,” he added.
Civic Memorial 48, Highland 41
The Eagles led the Bulldogs for 30 of the game’s 32 total minutes, with their largest lead coming out of the gate at 11 in the first quarter. CM scored the game’s first eight points and then built its advantage up to 16-5 before not cashing in on layups and allowing the Bulldogs to claw their way back into contention.
Highland scored the last six points of the opening period to cut the deficit down to five heading to the second quarter. The Eagles led 23-17 at halftime, but the Bulldogs got baskets from Brown and Portell before Portell was on target with a 3-pointer to give Highland its first lead at 26-25 with 4:32 left in the third quarter.
But the Eagles responded with an 8-0 spurt on a basket by senior Kaylee Eaton and 3-pointers by Alaira Tyus and freshman Tori Standefer to take a 33-26 edge.
Portell buried another 3-pointer to pull the Bulldogs to within 33-29 after three quarters.
Eaton, who finished with 12 points, hit a 3-pointer just over a minute into the final stanza to extend CM’s lead to 36-29.
But Highland refused to go away quietly.
Portell and Nyquist drilled 3-pointers and Brown nailed a jumper to help the Bulldogs close within 43-41 with just over 3:00 remaining.
But that would be Highland’s final points and the Eagles closed out a turnover-free fourth quarter with the game’s final five points. Sophomore Anna Hall, who scored 18 points to top all scorers, scored two baskets to help CM slam the door on the Bulldogs’ hopes.
Hall, a 5-foot-11 post player, has recorded her top two scoring games of the season against the Bulldogs. She also led all scorers with 21 points in a 52-25 rout of Highland back in December.
Portell paced the Bulldogs with 16 points, highlighted by her three 3-point baskets. Brown also hit double figures with 10 points for Highland, which shot a solid 49 percent (17 of 35) from the field.
Tyus matched Eaton for team runner-up honors with 12 points for CM.
The Eagles shot 43 percent (18 of 42) and had nine turnovers compared to 17 for the Bulldogs.
Highland only attempted three free throws, converting two of them. CM had 10 free-throw attempts and made half of them.
“We played hard, there’s no doubt about it,” said Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot, who will most likely go without an MVC title for the first time in his five years at the helm. “We came here tonight and competed. Offensively, our struggles are still happening. I felt like we went to the rim enough. We didn’t get rewarded by going to the rim as much as they did. But our effort was there defensively and it has been.
“...They would go down and bury a 3 and then we would counter. But every time they needed a big shot they got the big shot.”
Highland also received five points from Nyquist, four points from LaPorta, and three points apiece from Kronk and Riffel.
The stage appears set for a fourth meeting between the teams in February at the IHSA Class 3A Civic Memorial Regional if, as expected, the Eagles and the Bulldogs are seeded 2-3 behind Breese Central in a sub-sectional.
It would be the fifth consecutive year that CM and Highland would battle four times.