In the second meeting of the season against the Breese Mater Dei Knights, there was a great chance for the Highland Lady Bulldogs to knock off the perennial 3A power.
This time around, it was Kierra Winkler and Claire Toennies who stole the Bulldogs’ opportunity and ended Highland’s hopes of winning a regional title.
Winkler and Toennies broke loose for 16 points each, and Mater Dei staved off a late Highland rally to claim the Class 3A regional championship 57-51 on Thursday in Breese.
Mater Dei (22-7) advanced to play Carterville on Tuesday in the class 3A sectional semifinals on Tuesday at Salem at 7:30 p.m.
It was the second win of the season over the Lady Bulldogs for Mater Dei, which beat Highland 45-43 back on Dec. 14.
“I think we just worked well as a team, we played really good defense and we just had to stay patient on offense to get a good shot,” Toennies said. “We just gave it our all.”
In the early moments, neither was able to get out to a fast start as the defenses locked in for both teams.
Mater Dei (22-7) led by just three at the end of the first quarter and in the second quarter, the Lady Bulldogs managed to cut the lead to 22-21 on sophomore forward Bella LaPorta’s inside bucket with just over a minute left in the quarter.
Winkler responded with a deep 3 from the left side to push the lead back to 25-22 as the half drew to a close.
“They (Highland) have so many weapons over there that you almost don’t know how to guard them,” Mater Dei coach Nathan Reuter said. “We did a great job of seeing the floor and scoring and when we switched from the two-three (zone) to the man to man we really got after them and went after every loose ball.”
Highland pulled within 29-27 on a Megan Kronk three-ball early in the third quarter.
The Knights answered a couple of minutes later with an 11-4 run keyed by a Toennies basket and a Sally Albers backdoor two to surge to a 40-31 in the final minutes of the third stanza.
“Claire really had one of her best games tonight,” Ruester said. “She played well and the kids off of the bench, everybody did their job.”
Down nine in the fourth quarter, the Lady Bulldogs made one more run. Turning up their man to man pressure defense, Highland pulled to within 49-47 with 3:11 on a LaPorta steal and bucket and another three-ball from Kronk.
“In the second half, I thought we handled their matchup (zone) a little better and started getting some better shots,” Highland coach Clint Hamilton said.
That run forced a Knights timeout. Out of the timeout, Winkeler kickstarted the Knights one more time with a pair of baskets and an 8-4 4 run denied the Lady Bulldogs a comeback and the regional championship trophy.
It was a painful end to the season for Highland (25-8) which carried a seven-game win streak into the regional final.
“We had 12 kids that weren’t ready for their season to end, but I told them sometimes that’s just the way it goes,” Hamilton said. “Mae (Riffel), Bella, everybody tried to keep us in it but we just couldn’t hit the shots when we needed to. I’m a little bit disappointed but I wouldn’t trade these kids for anything.”