The Highland basketball Lady Bulldogs ended 2015 with a bang when they defeated Class 2A’s top-ranked Breese Central 46-44 to win the Mascoutah Girls Invitational on Dec. 30. Highland has kept the celebration going well into the New Year as the Bulldogs still have not tasted defeat.
Last Thursday, the Bulldogs traveled to Breese and pounced on the Cougars with a 17-0 first quarter en route to again chop down the No. 1 team in Class 2A, this time by an even more decisive final of 57-48.
Next on Saturday at the 25th annual Highland Optimist Shootout, Highland scored a 56-50 victory over rival Triad in what was virtually a must-win game as it allowed the Bulldogs to pull even atop the Mississippi Valley Conference standings instead of letting the Knights get a stranglehold of a two-game lead. Highland’s win avenged a 63-58 setback on Dec. 3 at Triad.
Then on Monday, Highland traveled to Mascoutah and overcame a sluggish offensive first half to overwhelm the Indians 24-4 in the final stanza and pull away for a 53-47 come-from-behind win.
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The victory over Mascoutah was the 12th straight for Highland (15-3), which jumped up to ninth when the Associated Press Class 3A state rankings came out on Tuesday.
The Bulldogs share the MVC lead with Triad (13-2) as both teams are 5-1 in the conference and have at least a two-game lead over the rest of conference. Civic Memorial (11-6) sits third in the league at 3-2 with both losses coming on their home floor to both the Knights and Bulldogs earlier in the season.
Highland has another huge MVC game tonight when it hosts CM, which has won six of its last seven games.
Then on Saturday, the Bulldogs tip off their own 30th annual Highaldn Girls Basketball Tournament with a 4 p.m. game against the Nokomis Redskins.
Highland junior Madison Wellen said the team has really improved a lot since the beginning of the season and the roll the team is on is exciting.
“Everybody has really come together and stepped up. Everybody is starting to know their roles and we are really starting to gel as a team,” she said.
Highland 53, Mascoutah 37
With its high-powered offense held in check for the first three quarters on Monday, the Lady Bulldogs turned up the defensive pressure and turned loose Amanda Ponce.
The offensive catalyst of the streaking Bulldogs, Ponce, a Maryville University recruit, scored the first seven points of the final period to key a 24-4 scoring spurt as Highland pulled away for a 16-point triumph over Mascoutah in a Mississippi Valley Conference game.
Led by a patient offense and outstanding defense, Mascoutah (10-7, 2-3) broke a 29-all on a basket and free throw by Kennedy Bryant and a free throw by Amaya Keeling to take a 33-29 lead entering the fourth quarter.
But Ponce, held to just seven points through three quarters, scored on a driving layup, a stop-and-pop jumper and a three-point play all in the first 80 seconds of the final quarter as Highland took the lead for good.
“I thought the key in the fourth quarter was that we were able to get some points off our defense,’’ Bulldogs coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “Amanda (Ponce) got us off to a good start in the fourth quarter, Madison (Wellen) got us a few key points, Hayley (Taylor) hit a couple of big 3-point shots and, as usual, Alex LaPorta did a great job on the boards.’’
Mascoutah, which was led by 5-foot-10 post player Tennaye Green’s 12 points — including eight in the second half — finally got on the scoreboard in the final quarter when Green tallied on a 10-foot baseline jumper to pull back to within 36-35. But Highland then put the game away.
Taylor scored on a short jumper and Wellen connected on her second 3-point basket of the night to give the Bulldogs a 41-35 lead.
Wellen (16 points), who combined with Ponce to score 16 of Highland’s 24 fourth-quarter points, followed with a free throw and when LaPorta scored on an offensive rebound, the Bulldogs led 44-37 with 4:04 left in the game.
Mascoutah didn’t score a point the rest of the way.
Ponce, coming off three outstanding games a week ago in wins over Mater Dei, Central and Triad, tallied 10 of her 17 points in the final period.
“I think we might have been a litte tired,’’ Arbuthnot said. “But let’s give Mascoutah credit. They are a very well coached team that has already won 10 games this year. We knew we would have our hands full coming in here tonight and we did.’’
Highland 56, Triad 50
Both teams entered with 10-game winning streaks but only one would be extended to 11.
Triad hadn’t lost since bowing to Lebanon in the title game of the Columbia Tournament on Nov. 21. And the Knights were not only sitting alone atop the conference standings undefeated, but they were the last team to get past Highland, when it took a 63-58 victory on Dec. 3.
On Saturday, Triad senior sharpshooter Sophie Thompson put on a dazzling shooting display after lighting it up for seven 3-pointers and a game-high 27 points, but it was Highland which stepped up in the clutch over the final four minutes.
Highland senior Amanda Ponce, who is playing with a torn posterior cruciate ligament, scored nine of her 14 points in the fourth quarter and also contributed seven rebounds and four assists to earn MVP honors.
Wellen led the Bulldogs with 16 points to go along with three assists while junior Alex LaPorta tallied another double-double with a game-best 14 rebounds to go along with a game-high four steals and 10 points.
“We didn’t really feel pressure, we just felt it was just another game and looked at it as an opportunity,” Wellen said. “Coach Arb (Mike Arbuthnot) has been telling us, ‘Just play your guys’ game, you guys are better athletes and you guys can do anything you put your minds to.’ ”
Highland did it and improved to 6-3 in Highland Optimist Shootout games.
Arbuthnot said his team is happy with the way they have been playing the last couple of weeks.
“We feel like we’re starting to play a lot better,” he said. “We were able to keep the ball in Amanda’s hands and Madison’s hands late in that ballgame with the lead. That’s good for us because we know they’re good free-throw shooters, and they were able to knock some down.”
Thompson, a Central Methodist recruit, said she hasn’t been shooting well, but she broke out of her slump by keeping the Knights in the game with sizzling efficiency from beyond the arc.
“I’ve been off my last few games and have been in the gym a lot trying to fix my shot,” Thompson said. “It finally clicked again. It was good to see that. I was doing something weird with my shot. I was kicking my feet out. I was in the gym making sure I didn’t do that. Today, everything just went right. I was shooting high and it was perfect.”
Still, it was bittersweet for Thompson.
“I’m glad I got my shot back, but I would have much rather won,” she said. “It’s Highland. We always want to beat Highland.”
The two teams have a shot at meeting twice more this season, first in the championship game of the Highland Girls Basketball Tournament and then again in the IHSA Class 3A Triad Regional.
Triad coach Josh Hunt lauded Thompson.
“Sophie was dynamic today,” Hunt said. “She’s been struggling a little bit lately, so that was really good to see.”
Hunt said the game didn’t mirror the first meeting between the teams, when it was the Knights who made the key plays down the stretch to win.
“It was 40-40 at one point and I just told the girls, ‘It’s a four- to five-minute game,” Hunt said. “They just made a few more plays than we did down the stretch. It happens. In the game at Triad a month ago, it was the same scenario, an eight-minute game where we made more plays down the stretch.
“For whatever reason, it wasn’t meant to be today. But there’s no shame in what we did. We played with a team that’s as hot as it can be.”
Senior Abby Burroughs added 10 rebounds and nine points for Triad and junior Samantha Bassler had eight points for the Knights.
Also contributing to the victory for Highland were junior Hayley Taylor with four points and seven rebounds, junior Katie Kampwerth with four points and five boards, senior Caitlin Lammers with four points, two steals, two rebounds and one assist, and sophomore Rece Portell with two rebounds, one assist and one steal.
Highland 57, Central 48
Ponce scored eight of her 19 points to highlight a near flawless first quarter when Highland jumped out to a 17-0 lead and went on to score a nine-point win over Central before a large crowd at Central High School.
Ranked 13th in the Class 3A state poll released on Tuesday of last week, the Bulldogs connected on four of their first five shots — with Ponce scoring twice and junior Alex LaPorta adding an offensive putback — as Highland jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first 2:25 of the game.
It would get no better for the Cougars, ranked No. 1 in Class 2A, for the remainder of the first period. Unofficially, Central finished the opening period 0-for 13 from the floor with seven turnovers.
For Arbuthnot, his pregame talk of getting out to a fast start couldn’t have been executed any better.
“On the way over here we talked about how important getting out to a fast start in the first four minutes would be because we knew Central would come out fired up and ready to play. We did that,” Arbuthnot said. “We hit some shots early which got our confidence up, we attacked the boards and got a couple of putbacks and we created some turnovers with our defense. We were ready to play.”
Highland led 30-16 at halftime then used the play of LaPorta, who scored a game-high 23 points including 17 in the second half, to keep a safe margin as it handed Central a rare loss at home.
Ponce and LaPorta were unstoppable in the first quarter. With the 6-foot-1 LaPorta scoring twice and Ponce slicing and dicing her way through the Cougars defense for six points, the Bulldogs took a 10-0 lead with 3:53 left in the first period.
Less than a minute later, Wellen got into the act with a 3-point basket, forcing Cougars coach Nathan Rueter to call his second timeout in the first six minutes of the game.
“They (Highland) were ready to play and we, for some unknown reason, we weren’t which was very unusual considering the game was played in our gym,” Rueter said. “Credit their kids. They came out with a lot of energy and we were sluggish.
“We had some good looks a few times early and when they didn’t fall. It just seemed like we lost our focus. We’re going to have to play better and coach better.”
Central which didn’t get on the scoreboard until Faye Meissner connected on a 3-point shot just 23 seconds into the second quarter, was led by senior all-stater Kendra Wilken, who scored 18 points.
But the 6-2 Cougars standout took a backseat to LaPorta who was simply all over the floor as she recorded a double-double with 23 points and 12 rebounds.
“Alex was all over the floor tonight,” Arbuthnot said. “Those who have watched her play know what a tremendous rebounder she is and how hard she plays. But tonight she did a good job of playing defense and she was able to step out and hit a couple of 3-point shots. She had a great game.’’
Ponce finished with 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Central got 11 points from reserve guard Olivia Page, all in the final four minutes of the game.
Wellen wound up with nine points, four rebounds, three assists and one steal.
Also chipping in to Highland’s win were Taylor with five points, three rebounds and one steal, and Lammers with two points, two boards, two assists and one steal.
30th Annual Scott Credit Union Highland Girls Basketball Tournament
January 16-23 at Highland High School
Saturday, January 16
Game 1 at 10 a.m. Triad vs. Carlyle
Game 2 at 11:30 a.m. O’Fallon vs. Mater Dei
Game 3 at 1 p.m. Teutopolis vs. Althoff
Game 4 at 2:30 p.m. Breese Central vs. Okawville
Game 5 at 4 p.m. Highland vs. Nokomis
Game 6 at 5:30 p.m. Belleville West vs. Taylorville
Game 7 at 7 p.m. Hillsboro vs. Nashville
Game 8 at 8:30 p.m. Salem vs. Wesclin
Monday, January 18
Game 9 at 4 p.m. Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2
Game 10 at 5:30 p.m. Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4
Game 11 at 7 p.m. Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2
Game 12 at 8:30 p.m. Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4
Tuesday, January 19
Game 13 at 4 p.m. Loser Game 5 vs. Loser Game 6
Game 14 at 5:30 p.m. Loser Game 7 vs. Loser Game 8
Game 15 at 7 p.m. Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 6
Game 16 at 8:30 p.m. Winner Game 7 vs. Winner Game 8
Wednesday, January 20
Game 17 at 5 p.m. Winner Game 9 vs. Winner Game 10
Game 18 at 6:30 p.m. Winner Game 13 vs. Winner Game 14
Game 19 at 8 p.m. Winner Game 11 vs. Winner Game 12
Thursday, January 21
Game 20 at 5 p.m. Loser Game 11 vs. Loser Game 12
Game 21 at 6:30 p.m. Loser Game 15 vs. Loser Game 16
Game 22 at 8 p.m. Winner Game 15 vs. Winner Game 16
Saturday, January 23
Game 23 at 10 a.m. Winner Game 17 vs. Winner Game 18
Fifth Place Game
Game 24 at 11:30 a.m. Winner Game 20 vs. Winner Game 21
Third Place Game
Game 25 at 1 p.m. Loser Game 19 vs. Loser Game 22
Game 26 at 2:30 p.m. Winner Game 19 vs. Winner Game 22