The clash of the past two tournament champions — Highland and Central — will highlight the first round of games Tuesday when the Mascoutah High School Girls Holiday Invitational Basketball Tournament opens with eight opening round games.
The defending tournament champion Highland Bulldogs, which defeated Central 46-44 to win last year’s tournament, bring an 8-3 record into their first round game against the 2015 champion Cougars who are 5-6 but continue to improve under the guidance of coach Nathan Rueter. The Central-Highland game is at 10 a.m. with the winner to take on either Triad (5-4) or O’Fallon (8-2) in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
The titles at Mascoutah have proven to be a boost for both Central and Highland the last two years. After winning in 2015, the Cougars went on to place second in the Class 2A State Tournament. Highland used the momentum from its title run at Mascoutah a year ago to mount a third place finish in the Class 3A state finals.
Nine of the 12 programs in the 2016 Mascoutah Invitational have winning records, and they are hoping to build momentum for the second half of the season.
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“We’re going into Mascoutah hoping to win a couple of games in the winners bracket and then take it from there,” O’Fallon coach Ryan Massey said. “The Mascoutah Tournament is always a high quality event with great competition. Hopefully we will get to play four games in the next three days.”
Belleville East (8-5), led by sophomore Kaylah Rainey, will take on tournament newcomer Jacksonville at 11:30 a.m. with the Nashville-Centralia game at 1 p.m. filling out the top half of the bracket.
Highland, ranked fifth in the first Class 3A state poll, and O’Fallon appear to be the two teams in the top half of the bracket playing the best.
Highland lost its opening game of the season to Belleville East, but have lost only twice since with both losses coming to undefeated rival Civic Memorial.
The Bulldogs are led by the one-two punch of Alex LaPorta (15.3 ppg and 15 rebounds) and senior Madison Wellen (18.3 ppg). Both were honorable mention all-state selections last season. O’Fallon, which enters tournament play on a five-game winning streak, is led by senior Marta Durk (16.7 ppg).
While Highland and O’Fallon could be the favorites to play in the tournament title game on Thursday, the bottom half of the bracket is also loaded.
Okawville (12-1) has the best record in the tournament and will take on host Mascoutah at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, while Mater Dei (6-4), Althoff (9-5) and Belleville West (8-3) are all favored in their first round games.
Coached by Michelle Hasheider-Burianek, Okawville is riding an eight-game winning streak. Included in that streak was a 35-18 win over Mater Dei two weeks ago. The Lady Rockets specialize in defense and have held nine of their 13 opponents to 40 points or less.
Junior Madison Hackstadt (14.7) leads Okawville, ranked fifth in the Class 1A poll, in scoring. Mater Dei is battle tested after a difficult schedule, having played Okawville, Civic Memorial, Highland, and Belleville West — four teams with a combined record of 42-7.
Althoff also comes in to the tournament red-hot. The Crusaders have won six their last seven games and are playing as well as any team since the return of senior Maggie Reimer from an early season injury. The Crusaders will take on South Seven Conference rival Carbondale at 5:30 p.m. Althoff defeated Carbondale 53-38 on Dec. 22.
Belleville West has been inconsistent during the first part of the season but started the season ranked eighth in Class 4A and are led by two sophomores, Chamya Darough (17.3 ppg) and B’Aunce Carter (13.0 ppg).
The tournament continues with quarterfinal games in the winners and losers bracket on Wednesday and the semifinals and finals Thursday.