After the script played out in the regular season for the second straight year, the Highland basketball Lady Bulldogs altered the ending the second time around and therefore kept their historic run alive.
After beating Civic Memorial all three times in the regular season a year ago, Highland had its season terminated by the Eagles in the regional championship for the third straight season.
But on Monday, Highland turned the tables and made it a clean season sweep of CM after besting the Eagles all four times this season with a 49-42 victory in the championship game of the Class 3A Benton Sectional at Rich Herrin Gym.
The Lady Bulldogs matched the program’s best ever postseason run, equaling the 1984 and 2008 teams which ended their seasons with sectional crowns.
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Highland will now seed to advance to the Final Four for the first time in program history and take on Lincoln at 7 p.m. Monday at the Springfield Super-Sectional to be held at the University of Illinois-Springfield. And if they were to do so, the Lady Bulldogs (29-4), who have won 12 in a row and 26th of their last 27 games, would also match the 2008 squad for most wins in school history at 30.
CM (22-11) lost in the sectional final for the second straight season.
“Each game in the postseason is a step closer to breaking many records,” said Highland senior standout Amanda Ponce, who scored a team-high 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting from the field. “We have a great bond and chemistry going within the team and the postseason has been a blast. The thing that stands out about us is that we have the ability to put five girls out on the court at any given time and anyone can step up and put the ball in the hole. I’m more than ready for this opportunity with this team.”
The fourth girls basketball matchup between Highland and Civic Memorial pretty much followed the script of the first three meetings.
It was a tight, back-and-forth battle, with both teams landing big blows before the Lady Bulldogs were the better team down the stretch.
“It was a chess match, no doubt about it,” Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “It just came down to us making a few more plays down the stretch than they did.”
Highland trailed by as much as eight (24-16) in the second quarter, but the Lady Bulldogs used a 9-0 run to lead 25-24 before Journey Coffman’s 3-pointer gave the Eagles a 27-25 halftime.
Highland seized control after the break, using a 12-2 surge over the first 5:10 of the third quarter to build an eight-point lead its own at 37-29.
CM responded to draw even at 39-39 on consecutive baskets from Allie Troeckler in the first 1:45 of the fourth quarter.
But the Lady Bulldogs clamped down defensively from there, stifling the Eagles without a field goal for almost 5 1/2 minutes and allowing only three points over the final six minutes and change.
Highland capitalized on its smothering defense to close the game on a 10-3 run. Ponce threw in six points and fellow senior Caitlin Lammers tossed in four over the final six minutes to seal the deal.
“I think our defense, especially in the second half, was the difference,” Ponce said. “I love representing Highland and I didn’t want it to be over.”
Troeckler scored all of CM”s seven points in the fourth quarter but it was not enough. She paced the Eagles with 21 points to match Ponce for game-best honors. Troeckler went 10-for-12 shooting from the field and added six rebounds.
But she got little help as the rest of her team mustered just 21 points total and no other player was remotely close to double figures. Katelyn Turbyfill and Journey Coffman were the next two on the scoring pylon for CM with six and five points, respectively.
Limiting the rest of Troeckler’s teammates was part of the Lady Bulldogs’ game plan.
“We knew going in, defensively they do a great job,” Abruthnot said of CM. “They have a great player and we knew Troeckler can take over games. We just wanted to get out and make sure we guarded the 3 and they didn’t have multiple people in double figures.”
Lammers and junior Alex LaPorta served as nice complements to Ponce. Lammers logged a dozen points, six rebounds and three assists while LaPorta yanked down a game-leading 12 rebounds to go with eight points, two assists and one steal.
Highland closed the game on a 10-3 run over the final 5 minutes and 59 seconds to break a 39-39 tie. Ponce scored from close range and Lammers converted on a nifty runner in the lane for a 43-39 cushion.
Civic Memorial junior Allie Troeckler, who finished with 21 points, hit a foul shot before the Bulldogs took control on successive baskets by Ponce and Lammers.
“Caitlin is always solid,” Ponce said. “She’s always able to step up when we need her to.”
Lammers’ final basket pushed the lead to 47-40 with 1:09 remaining.
“Last year, she didn’t see as much court time as maybe she would have liked,” Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “She came back and took the job as a starter.”
Junior Madison Wellen also came through with several key plays for the Lady Bulldogs, especially in the second half. She finished with six points, three assists and three rebounds and sophomore Rece Portell added a game-high five steals, two points and one steal to round out Highland’s game-winning stats.