Five days after leading the Highland girls basketball team to a milestone victory, Lady Bulldogs senior Amanda Ponce recorded one of her very own on Monday night at Highland High School.
With a 14-foot jumper from just inside the foul line midway through the fourth quarter, Ponce cracked the 1,000-point mark for her career as she led the sizzling Lady Bulldogs past Mater Dei 56-47 in a battle of perennial girls basketball powers.
Ponce, coming off a brilliant performance last week when Highland won its first title at the Mascoutah Girls Invitational since 2010, joined an elite club when she canned the jumper with 4:09 remaining to cap off seven straight points she scored to put her team up by a commanding 52-34 margin. The game was stopped briefly as teammates, coaches and a large home crowd rose to its feet for standing ovation to honor Ponce, who continued to solidify her spot as one of the best ever at Highland High School.
“It’s just nice to get it off my shoulders for the rest of the season and I don’t have to focus on it and be just ready to play the rest of the time,” Ponce said of hitting the 1,000-point plateau. “We still have room to improve but we’re improving fast and that’s good, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near peaking.”
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As for the game, Ponce combined with teammate Caitlin Lammers for four 3-point field goals to pace a torrid first quarter as Highland (12-3) took a 21-9 lead over Mater Dei (7-7) which saw its three-game winning streak snapped.
“I had some concerns coming in, but Caitlin Lammers stepped out and hit some big shots early for us, and we kind of settled in from there and got a lot of kids in the ballgame and got a lot of kids some time,” said Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot, whose team has reeled off nine wins in a row. “Caitlin (Lammers) and Amanda (Ponce) came out well and we shot the ball very well early in the game. Amanda is on a really good streak right now. She is playing with a lot of confidence and shooting the ball well, and I was happy for her to be able to get that 1,000th point tonight.”
Mater Dei junior Kelsey Gerdes paced the Knights with 23 points. But after Highland’s torrid first quarter, the Knights could get no closer than seven points the rest of the way.
Mater Dei trailed just 9-7 after Gerdes converted an old-fashioned three-point play with 3:10 left in the opening first quarter. But when junior guard Madison Wellen scored on a backdoor cut to the basket, the floodgates opened against the Knights.
Ponce followed with her second 3-pointer of the quarter — her first came on a rare four-point play — and sophomore Rece Portell also got behind the Knights defense for a layup as the lead grew to 16-7.
Lammers, a smooth-shooting southpaw, followed with her second 3-pointer and when Ponce added a basket following a Knights turnover, Highland had a 21-7 cushion.
Mater Dei used a 7-0 run early in the second quarter to draw within 23-16, but juniors Hayley Taylor and Katie Kampwerth both scored to push the Lady Bulldogs lead to double figures. Highland led 31-18 at halftime.
“(Highland) shot the ball very well, but they executed very well on both ends of the floor,” Knights coach Dave Kohnen said. “Evidently, I didn’t prepare my kids well enough and we’re going to work on that and get better. We just looked like we were a step behind the whole night and we also missed too many shots. We had some good looks at the basket and we just didn’t connect. We got beat on the defensive end too many times and we have to learn from that. We got backdoored too many times. Sometimes you get caught watching the game and you get beat.”
Ponce was the only Highland player in double figures with 16 points as Arbuthnot went to his bench early and often and the Lady Bulldogs featured a balanced scoring attack.
Lammers and junior Madison Wellen, who was celebrating her 17th birthday, each scored eight points.
Highland also received six points apiece from Portell, junior Alex LaPorta and junior Katie Kampwerth, four from junior Hayley Taylor and two from junior Abby Melosi.
Arbuthnot said one of his biggest concerns was Mater Dei’s adept free-throw shooting. For the game, the Knights went 15-for-16 at the charity stripe.
“They are one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the area,” Arbuthnot said of Mater Dei. “ I know at one time they were like 12-for-12. We walked in at halftime and they only had five field goals but they had 18 points. (Mater Dei) is a young ballclub but they are getting better, and they have played a lot of teams close. They lost to (Belleville) East by one and played Central tough, so I was happy with our effort tonight, I really was. I thought kids really played hard and played together.”
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for Highland which travels to Central to take on the Cougars tonight for a rematch of the Mascoutah Invitational title game won 46-44 by the Lady Bulldogs.
Highland then hosts Triad at 11 a.m. Saturday to tip off the Highland Optimist Shootout. The game will go a long way towards deciding the Mississippi Valley Conference championship and whether it will be shared or not. The Knights who are 4-0 in the conference, won the first meeting, 63-58, over the visiting Lady Bulldogs (3-1 MVC) on Dec. 3.