It was a night-long struggle for the Highland Lady Bulldogs to find a rhythm against O’Fallon in the championship game of the 41st Mascoutah Invitational Tournament.
In the end, it was just a play or two that didn’t go their way.
A late rally pulled Highland within one-point of ninth-seeded O’Fallon in the final minute, but a turnover and a desperation three-point shot from Mae Riffel fell short at the buzzer as the Panthers held off Highland to win a 49-48 thriller Saturday at Mascoutah High School.
O’Fallon (12-3) came out with a major surge of energy in the opening half as 6-foot sophomore post Amelia Bell rattled the Lady Bulldogs inside for 12 first-half points to help the Panthers to a 16-7 lead after one quarter and a 30-17 halftime lead.
Bell was held in check in the second half but still was a presence in the paint throughout the night and finished with 14 points
“My coaches really talked to me before the game because I’ve had a few off games and so they told me that I really needed to show up,” Bell said. “I knew my teammates needed to drive to the basket but that I also needed to stay strong in the post and help them out.”
When Bell wasn’t doing damage inside, it was O’Fallon’s trio of guards —senior Ashley Schroer, junior Makayla Best, and junior Kayla Gordon — that also gave Highland (13-4) trouble on both ends of the floor. Schroer pumped in 14 points, Best scored 10 points and Gordon chipped in nine.
“I think the first half we just didn’t match their intensity as far as their guards were concerned,” Highland coach Clint Hamilton said.
The O’Fallon guards neutralized Highland sharpshooter Ellie Brown, holding her to just six points.
“We wanted to wear them down a little bit and we wanted to make sure we got it into our post and I thought our guard play is so good they were going to key on that,” O’Fallon coach Nick Knolhoff said. “I have three or four good guards I can rotate in and out and just being able to apply that pressure, they are so good at reading where the defense is (in transition) and we get breaks three-on-one, three-one-two.”
O’Fallon stretched the lead to 40-27 on a Best 3-pointer with 5:08 left in the third quarter. Another 3-pointer and three free-throws by Emmy Nyquist keyed an 8-0 run to the cut the lead to 40-35 as the third quarter closed.
Down eight points with 3:20 to go, the Lady Bulldogs had one more run in them. Riffel knocked down a pair of free-throws and scored off a steal to cut the lead to four. With just 1:06 left, Megan Kronk drilled a long three-point shot from the right perimeter to cut the lead to 49-48.
The Bulldogs had a chance to take the lead with 27 seconds left but an inside pass was picked off by Bell to stop the possession.
“We had a back screen set up that kind of got thrown off a little bit because of our personnel but they did a good job of taking the ball out of Ellie’s hands so we had to run it with a different player but we had to set up and they did a good job of taking it away,” Hamilton said..
Schroer had a chance to settle the issue with 4.9 seconds but her 1-and -1 free-throw attempt clanged off the side of the rim and Kronk’s half-court heave at the buzzer fell short.
“I told the girls that I’d rather play 20 games like that than to beat a team by 20 points because you learn so much more from a game like that and you get so much more out of it,” Hamilton said.
Bella LaPorta led Highland with 13 points. Riffel scored 11 points and Nyquist added nine points.