The Highland girls basketball team never trailed and held off a pesky Lincoln squad to punch the program’s first-ever ticket to the 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 team’s 17 fourth-quarter points to finish with a game-high 19, including going 9-for-11 from the foul line in the final stanza 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 anything like again.”
Ponce also went 5-for-7 from the field, grabbed four rebounds and had two assists.
After Lincoln chopped an eight-point deficit down to 36-34, the Bulldogs went 10-for-10 in the final 1:16 from the charity stripe — with Ponce going 6-for-6 — to seal the victory. For the game, Highland went 19-for-21.
Highland (30-4) advances to the Class 3A state semifinals in Bloomington, where the Bulldogs will take on North Lawndale (Chicago) at noon on Friday. North Lawndale (22-11) 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 want the season to end,” said Highland coach Mike Arbuthnot, whose team has won 13 in a row and 27 of its last 28 to equal the 2008 team for the most wins (30) in a single season while locking down the program’s first super-sectional crown. “They want to keep playing, and now we get to play as long as you can possibly 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 stickback, a Wellen layup and a Ponce floater in the lane to go up 31-22, before Lincoln’s Kaelyn Froebe hit a 3-pointer to close out the frame.
To start the game, 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 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).
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.
The Railsplitters, who 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 for the game, sophomore Rece Portell added four rebounds, two steals and two points and Lammers had three boards, two assists and two points.