The Highland basketball Lady Bulldogs could be nicknamed “Closers” because they sure have been closing the deal by winning games down the stretch.
Highland had a good start but had to execute an even better finish in order to overcome a miserable two middle quarters and score a 45-42 come-from-behind win over visiting Civic Memorial Thursday night and stretch their winning streak to a baker’s dozen.
And not many anywhere personify the “Closer” mentality any better than Highland senior standout Amanda Ponce.
Her last three ballgames are a perfect testament to that.
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After scoring nine of her 14 points in the fourth quarter in a 56-50 comeback victory over Triad last Saturday and then ringing up 10 of her 17 points in the final period in a 53-37 come-from-behind win at Mascoutah on Monday, Ponce finished with a flurry Thursday to break the hearts of the Eagles.
After mustering just five points through nearly three quarters and finding her team trailing for more than two quarters of play, including by as many 10, Highland was down by a hefty 32-23 margin before Ponce shifted into overdrive and took charge down the stretch again.
The Maryville University recruit dumped in 12 points, highlighted by eight in the final stanza, to power the Lady Bulldogs to a 23-10 scoring advantage over the final 10 minutes and change and snatch the important win.
Ponce was never more clutch than when she was faced with a 38-33 deficit with five minutes to play after CM junior standout Allie Trockler, who topped all scorers with 29 points, scored on back-to-back layups.
Ponce netted six straight points in just more than a minute on two free throws, a circus two-handed flip shot in the lane, and a steal and coast-to-coast layup to put the Lady Bulldogs out front for good at 39-38 with about 3 1/2 minutes to play.
“We really saw the open lanes to take the ball to the rack in the second half, most of us were struggling with outside shots tonight but we managed to get the job done,” said Ponce, who has led her team to a 13-game winning streak and a ninth-place Class 3A state ranking with a 16-3 record. “As a team we weren’t playing our best, but we really had a will to win. We missed a lot of shots that we usually don’t miss, but we never gave up and that’s what matters. This was a great game to play going into the Highland Tournament and I’m more than happy with the way that we have been performing and it’s been a lot of fun, looking forward to taking it into the tournament and the second half of the season.”
Ponce was the MVP but she got great support from her teammates to help seal the deal.
Sophomore Rece Portell came off the bench and was huge for Highland. She made a nice play in transition, beating the defense by dribbling into the lane and forcing the defender to switch to her before bouncing a perfect pass over to junior Alex LaPorta for a layup to nudge the lead to 41-38 with 2:35 to go.
After Troeckler scored, LaPorta returned the favor by assisting on a Portell layup to extend HHS’ advantage back to three with 1:36 remaining.
Troeckler again responded, this time with a short jumper in the lane to pull the Eagles back within 43-42.
After a foiled possession by both teams, Highland junior Madison Wellen was fouled with 19.7 seconds left. She calmly toed the foul line and drained both for the game’s final points.
“I wasn’t nervous because that’s the basket I shoot at in practce, so I just took a deep breath and stepped up and hit the shot,” said Wellen, who finished with nine points. “I knew the second one was going to go in because I was going to do the same thing I did on the first one.”
Troeckler’s forced line-drive 3-point shot at the buzzer was off the mark.
With the win, the Lady Bulldogs (16-3) swept CM (11-7) for the second straight season and has posted six straight conference wins to match Triad atop the Mississippi Valley Conference standings at 6-1. The Knights knocked off Mascoutah 52-38 on Thursday.
The Eagles fell to an even 3-3 in the league and are all but eliminated from the chase for the conference crown. Triad still has a home game against CM on
Highland itself in prime position to at least win a share of the MVC title for the third straight season after splitting it with the Eagles two years ago and winning it outright last season.
“I liked our start and I liked our finish but the other two quarters we were a step slow and a little sluggish,” Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “But I think a lot of it has to do with CM, they did a good job defensively and they were well prepared. They had four or five days to get ready for us and it showed...But the thing I like is what my team has. Amanda Ponce steps up, Madison Wellen steps up and Alex LaPorta takes a crucial charge there in a crucial situation. These kids just have a will to win and they’re keep finding ways to get it done, even when we’re not at our best.”
Highland raced out to a 9-0 advantage to open the game, only to watch CM go on a 9-0 spurt of its own and tie it on Trockler’s layup at the buzzer.
Then after going on top 13-9 on successive buckets from LaPorta, the Lady Bulldogs went ice cold and went scoreless for 4:24 and got outscored 16-2 over a 5:36 stretch to find themselves trailing 25-15 with 1:38 remaining in the first half.
But junior Hayley Taylor converted an putback and Portell knocked drilled a 3-pointer with 15 seconds left and the lead was cut to five at the half.
After Wellen hit a 3-pointer to pull HHS within 27-23, Highland again went quiet, this time for a span of 4:31 to fall behind 32-23 with 3:27 to go in third quarter.
Then the Lady Bulldogs stepped up to close out another big win.
“We definitely struggled in the middle of the game,” Wellen said. “We weren’t shooting the ball well tonight and we weren’t really clicking on offense and we did have to come back from a big deficit. Coach Arb told us to keep fighting and we just persevered. Our defensive effort really won the game for us.”
Despite building leads of 10 and nine points, respectively, CM could not put Highland away and the Lady Bulldogs defense kept them in the game.
“We tried to control Troeckler as well as we can; she is such a great player and she steps up...We know how good she is but we just wanted to make sure nobody else went off,” Arbuthnot said. “She is a tough matchup and that’s why she is a Division I player. She is going to be playing four years of Division I basketball. She is a great player and a great kid and I can’t say enough about her.”
But Highland’s 1-3-1 zone defense in the fourth quarter definitely played a role in the comeback win because it helped lead to turnovers and more limited Troeckler’s touches.
And while Ponce had help from her teammates, Troeckler received little assistance as only two other players marked in the scoring column in the game — Katelyn Turbyfill (seven points) and Kaylee Eaton (six points).
“We switched defenses and I don’t think that they recognized it, so we were able to use it to our advantage and get some quick steals and some quick points,” Wellen said. “They controlled the tempo in the first half, but we sped them up and controlled the tempo in the second half.”
Wellen also gave kudos to the job Portell did in limited but crunch minutes off the bench.
“Rece did an outstanding job coming off the bench for us. She came up big and that’s all we can ask for,” Wellen said.
Portell finished with seven points, including canning a 13-foot jumper off an assist from Ponce with five seconds to go in the third quarter to help cut the nine-point deficit to 34-29 heading into the fourth frame.
Also for the Lady Bulldogs, LaPorta contributed six points, Taylor added four points and senior Caitlin Lammers had two points.