The Highland girls basketball team never trailed and held off a pesky Lincoln squad to advance to the program’s first-ever Final Four with a 48-40 victory over the Railsplitters Monday in the Class 3A Springfield Super-Sectional at the University of Illinois Springfield.
“It’s what we’ve worked for all year, and it’s something you really don’t think about when you first start playing, but we have a really special team, and we have great chemistry, and I am so glad we have got to fulfill all of our dreams tonight,” said Highland senior Amanda Ponce, who scored Highland’s first 11 points of the fourth quarter and tallied 13 of her game-high 19 in the stanza, including going 9-for-11 from the foul line to help hold Lincoln at bay. “I can’t believe it, it’s awesome and it’s something I will probably never get to experience again.”
The Bulldogs went 10-for-10 in the final 1:16 from the charity stripe to seal the victory and were 19-for-21 for the game.
Highland (30-4)advances to the Class 3A state’s semifinals in Bloomington, where the Bulldogs will take on Chicago North Lawndale at noon on Friday. Lawndale (20-11) beat Johnsburg 50-41 to win the River Forest Super-Sectional at Concordia University.
“We knew going into this year that we had the kids to get it done, and it’s a special group of kids, and they don’t the season to end,” said Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot, whose team has won 13 in a row and 27 of its last 28. “They want to keep playing, and now we get to play as long as you can play. We’re going to play through Saturday and I am so happy for them. We get to spend one more week together.”
Juniors Alex LaPorta and Madison Wellen both hit for double figures with 14 and 11 points, respectively. LaPorta again made it a double-double with a game-topping 13 rebounds. She also drained all six of her free throws.
“It’s amazing, we have been working so hard for this all season, so it’s really paid off, and we’re so happy,” LaPorta said. “We’ve been tested like this before against really good teams and they were a good team, so we knew had to come out strong, finish and make plays. I don’t think anybody else believed we could do this, but every one this team believed we could and that is why we worked so hard for it and it feels really good.”
After Lincoln cut a seven-point deficit down to 25-22 halfway through the third quarter, Highland reeled off six consecutive points on a LaPorta tickback, a Wellen layup and Ponce floater to go up 31-22, before Lincoln’s Kaelyn Froebe hit a 3-pointer to close out the frame.
The Bulldogs raced out to an 8-0 lead, as LaPorta was strong inside, scoring back-to-back inside baskets to in the first 2:46.
Highland built its lead up to 19-6 on five straight points from Wellen and a layup from LaPorta off a nice feed in the post from senior Caitlin Lammers.
But Lincoln countered with a 10-0 run over the next 2:19, as Hailie Williams buried two 3-pointers, and Morgan Lolling scored on a pair of layups.
The Bulldogs led 21-16 at the half and were led by LaPorta’s eight points and Wellen’s seven markers.
Highland ended the first quarter with a 12-6 advantage after going 5-for-9 from the field. Conversely, Lincoln which finishes at 22-13, almost had as many turnovers (four) as shots (five).
The Railsplitters, whho were led by Kennedy Lolling’s 10 points, also only went 5-for-25 from the behind the 3-point arc, including hitting just one of their final 16 attempts.
Also for Highland, sophomore Rece Portell added seven rebounds and two points and Lammers had five boards, two assists and two boards.