Highland’s dream of making it five conference crowns in a row ended with a 48-41 loss at Civic Memorial on Wednesday.
But the Lady Bulldogs wasted no time getting back on the winning track while snapping a three-game streak with an emphatic 72-39 victory over visiting Triad on Thursday.
Then on Saturday, the Lady Bulldogs made it back-to-back wins after traveling to Collinsville and staving off the host Kahoks, 59-56.
The two big wins helped ease some of the sting from Highland losing a big game Wednesday to host Civic Memorial, which toppled the four-time defending conference champion Bulldogs for the second time in five days, 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.
While the two wins boosted the Bulldogs’ season record to 16-9, 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,” Highland coach Mike 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.”
Sophomore guard Ellie Brown said it was important for Highland to rebound strong after the tough loss at CM.
“We definitely had a tough loss to CM because we played so hard and it was one of our goals to have a share of the conference title, but we did a great job of bouncing back and being focused and ready to play against Triad,” she said. “I thought everyone came out ready to play and contribute. As for today (Saturday at Collinsville), that was a big win for us. To be able to beat a team like Collinsville is a very huge deal and we hope to use that as momentum to keep playing well the rest of this season and into the postseason.”
Highland 59, Collinsville 56
Junior guard Emmy Nyquist shot lights out, especially in the first half, as she canned 4 of 6 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 19 points on 6-for-10 shooting from the field. She also handed out six assists to go with two rebounds and one steal.
As a team, Highland was on target for 8 of 19 3-pointers.
“It was cool, I was just feeling my shots and my teammates found me and got me the ball,” Nyquist said of having the hot hand. “I’m so proud of the team for pulling out the win. They’re a very good team and it was good for us to get them at their place.”
Senior guard Rece Portell joined Nyquist in double figures with 13 points while she also contributed six boards, a game-best five steals and two assists.
“Emmy shot really well in the first half especially and we just had different people knock down shots here and there. It was a team win and we found a way to win at the end,” Portell said.
Highland produced big time offensively through the first three quarters. The Bulldogs rallied for a 19-11 after eight minutes of play before inching their advantage up to 11 points (52-41) at the end of the third quarter.
Collinsville, which was paced by Antoinette Buehne’s 18 points, made a furious comeback attempt and outscored Highland 15-7 in the final stanza before coming up three points shy by the final buzzer.
Brown dished out a game-leading eight assists to go with four rebounds and two steals and freshman post player Bella LaPorta grabbed a game-topping seven boards to go with six points and one steal.
Also giving production for the Bulldogs were senior Lauren Baer with nine points, two rebounds and one assist, junior Mae Riffel with seven points, three rebounds and one assist, and sophomore Megan Kronk with three points and one assist.
Highland 72, Triad 39
After having some trouble scoring during a three-game losing skid, 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.
Brown was in the zone from long range, knocking down five 3-pointers to notch game-high honors with 18 points. She also added two assists and two steals.
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. She also had four rebounds and two steals.
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. She just finished a season playing overseas in Greece.
“I feel blessed to have the coaches that I had at Highland High School, like Matt Elledge and Diane Voss, and I feel blessed that they would honor me this way,” Hempen said.
Elledge said, “Katie was the best the player that I ever coached and it just felt like the right thing to do to honor her for all she did for our program and how she went on to do great things for a Division I program at Arizona State and then play for Team USA and then get the experience of 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 Riffel with nine points and four steals, Kronk with eight points, Portell with seven points and a game-topping eight assists, freshman Taylor Kesner with six points, Baer with five points and four assists, Nyquist with four points, seven assists, four rebounds and two steals, junior Lexi Taylor with two points, and sophomore Kirsten Taylor with one point.
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.