It was a tale of two halves. The Highland Bulldogs looked like a different team in the second half as they overcome a dreadful first half to score a 70-61 victory over Jerseyville Wednesday in the semifinal of the Class 3A Triad Regional.
The Bulldogs wasted no time taking charge after the break, punching Jerseyville with a 9-2 run to grab the lead for good and light up the scoreboard for 43 second-half points. It was the fifth consecutive win for Highland (17-12), with all of them coming against Mississippi Valley Conference rivals.
The Bulldogs were fortunate to be deadlocked at 27-27 at the half after turning the ball over 12 times in the first 16 minutes and trailing all but 28 seconds in total time of game clock. But fortuitous for Highland, Jerseyville (16-15) was also careless with the ball, committing 13 turnovers of its own and going 1-for-8 from the foul line.
But senior Austin Elledge came out flying in the second half, scoring seven straight points and senior Justin Twyford added a layup to put the Bulldogs on top 36-29, forcing Jerseyville coach Stote Reeder to burn a timeout 3:50 into the second half.
Highland ended up building its lead up to as many a baker’s dozen in the fourth quarter before a furious, frantic finish from the Panthers and senior Zac Ridenour made the ending a lot more worrisome than it needed to be. After going 1-for-6 from the charity stripe in the first half, Ridenour dumped in 19 of his game-high and career-best 31 points in the second half.
“Beating Jerseyville three times in one season is not easy for us and I respect coach (Stote) Reeder a lot and he does a great job with his kids,” Highland coach Matt Elledge said. “Jerseyville did a good defensively, but we also were not strong enough with the ball and did not protect it as well as we needed, and that led to turnovers. But at halftime, we just knew we had to come out and win the next 16 minutes if we want to keep playing.”
Elledge ended up scoring 16 of his 21 points in the second half to help propel the Bulldogs to their fifth win in a row and a berth in Friday’s 7 p.m. regional championship game against the state’s top-ranked 3A team in Althoff.
“I thought they did a nice job on (Austin) in the first half and I think he allowed that to happen, but he came out in the second half with more energy and more desire to get open and score,” coach Elledge said of his son.
After HHS bolted to the seven-point advantage halfway through the third quarter, the Panthers clawed back to within three points twice. Ridenour scored all six points, including all four free throws to pull Jerseyville to within 38-35 with 1:55 left.
Senior Brode Portell hit Jerseyville with a lightning-quick six unanswered points in 27 seconds to put Highland up 44-35 with 39 seconds left in the stanza. Portell finished with 14 points and Twyford added 11 points for the Bulldogs.
Jacob Ridenour hit a 3-pointer to chop it back to a six-point margin heading into the final eight minutes of play.
Elledge pumped in six points, senior Luke Thies chipped in four points and Elledge closed out a 12-5 run to open the final period with an assist to senior Chris Dickman for a layup to give the Bulldogs what seemed an insurmountable 56-43 lead with 4: 29 to play.
But after 6-foot-6 senior Drake Kanallakan scored, Zac Ridenour went on a scoring binge with 10 consecutive points for the Panthers to bring them within 58-55 with 1:50 to go.
But Highland went 8-for-10 from the foul line to close it out.
For the game, the Bulldogs went 22-for-32 from the free-throw stripe.
Despite giving up 61 points, it was the Bulldogs’ defense that helped win the game after forcing 24 turnovers.
“I think the pressure bothered them,” Elledge said . “We got some turnovers and we got some easy baskets. We really had them on the ropes in the third quarter because we were able to penetrate and find open men and get easy shots. And then typical of our team this year, we get to where we can make the knockout punch, but then we let up. We wanted to try transition, where we play great defense and then push the ball down the floor before they could get set up in their defense.”
But to have any chance against Althoff (26-2), the defending Class 3A runner-up and currently the 25th ranked team in the nation, coach Elledge knows his team has to cut down on the turnovers.
“We have to spread things out and we have to take better care of the ball and be as relaxed,” Elledge said. “I think sometimes the boys take Jerseyville, at least this year, a little too light at times. We showed them the ball an they took it from us. If we do that Friday night, it’s going to be a long night for us. Hopefully, we can take care of the ball and our guards can step up and play like their capable of playing.”