Known as one of the top offensive players in southern Illinois, Highland senior Amanda Ponce stepped up once again on Wednesday in the title game of the Mascoutah Girls Basketball Invitational. Only this time it was on the defensive end.
With Highland holding a 45-42 lead over two-time defending tournament champion Central with under 11 seconds remaining, Ponce stepped into the passing lane for a steal then made one of two free throws with 9.1 seconds left to all but clinch the Bulldogs’ 46-44 win before a large crowd at Mascoutah High School.
“I read the eyes of the player I was guarding. I could tell she was going to make that pass and so I decided to take a chance and step into the passing lane,” Ponce said. “This is a big win for us heading into the second half of the season.
“Tonight I just tried to find the open player and we were able to hit some shots early in the game. It’s not only me, we’ve got a lot of girls on this team who can really shoot the basketball and I think we showed that tonight.”
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Central (13-2) cut the lead to 46-44 with 5.5 seconds remaining but by the time the Highland player collected the ball for the inbounds pass there was under five seconds remaining, meaning the Bulldogs could let the clock run out.
The win at the 38th annual Mascoutah Girls Basketball Invitational is the first since 2010 for Highland (11-3). And like that team which featured current Arizona State University standout Katie Hempen, this team also featured a big-time go-to player in Ponce and a number of solid players who have their roles and do them well.
Ponce led Highland with 21 points, while Madison Wellen added 11 and junior Alex LaPorta chipped in with eight. LaPorta also did her part on the defensive end of the court, holding Central senior all-staer Kendra Wilken to nine points.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of the girls. We shot the basketball very well early in the game, but we knew that Central is a great basketball team and that they would make a run at us,” Bulldogs coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “It was a team effort. From Madison and Amanda shooting the 3-pointers early to give us a lead to Alex going a great job on Kendra in the post. And we had some other kids step up as well.
“But Amanda just had a great tournament for us. I’m glad she’s on our team.”
With Ponce hitting four 3-point shots and Wellen and LaPorta each adding a basket from beyond the 3-point circle, Highland led 26-17 at halftime and 34-28 after three quarters. But Central, riding an 11-game winnind g streak entering the final, battled back.
With Faye Meissneer, Kaylee Schrand and Wilken all scoring four fourth quarter points, the Cougars had three possessions with under two minutes left in the game where they could drawn even. But three missed shots and a turnover were crushing blows to the Cougars chances.
“We knew they (Highland) could really shoot the basketball and they did in the second quarter when they took the lead on us. But that’s not what lost the ballgame for us,’’ Central coach Nathan Rueter said. “We battled back and gave ourselves a chance late. We just didn’t execute.”
Third Place game
Belleville West 52, Belleville East 46
Freshman Chamya Darough scored 15 points — including six in the fourth quarter — as the Maroons claimed the third place trophy with the win over their city rivals.
Just four hours after taking a semifinal thrashing from Central, the Maroons used a 10-5 scoring advantage in the third quarter to take a 34-28 lead then withstood a late push from the Lancers to record their 11th win in 15 games.
“The third place game comes down to hustle and who just wants it more. We won in both those areas tonight,’’ West coach Seth Garrett said. “It wasn’t our best game of the tournament but when we needed to make a play, hit a shot or get a rebound late we were able to get the job done.
“Our goal was to be playing at 7 p.m. (title game) today, but we fell short of that. I was proud of how our girls battled and were able to come out of here with a record of 3-1 against four very goood teams.’’
Freshman Kayla Rainey led East (10-6) with 12 points while senior Ellisha Davis chipped in with 11.
Fifth place game
O’Fallon 51, Mascoutah 47
Pushed to the limit for the second time in eight hours, the O’Fallon Panthers (8-5) responded like champions on Wednesday — that is fifth place champions.
Senior Marta Durk finished a perfect night at the free throw line in grand style as she canned four charity tosses in the final 40 seconds to help the Panthers hold off a late Mascotah rally and defeat the Indians in the fifth place game.
Mascoutah (9-5) stayed close to O’Fallon the entire night and when Amaya Keeling nailed a 3-point basket with just under three minutes left, the Indians were within a point.
But Durk, who scored 29 points in O’Fallon’s win over Carbondale earlier in the day, made the final four of her straight free throw attempts to ice the win.
“Of course we would have liked to have been playing in the championship bracket today, but anytime you can come to the Mascoutah Tournament, play four games, win three of them and see improvement from your basketball squad, you have to be happy,’’ Panthers coach Ryan Massey said. “It was a good week.’’
Durk led O’Fallon with 15 points, while Becca Althoff added 13. Maddie Nekola paced Mascoutah with 17 points.
Mater Dei 59, Mount Vernon 49
Continuing to show improvement each time they take the floor, the Mater Dei Knights concluded a successful three days with a 10-point win over the Rams.
Freshman Kierra Winkeler scored 10 of her game high 16 points in the fourth quarter to lead the way for the Knights (7-6) which dropped tis first round game then rebounded to win their final three in tournament play.
“I’m pleased with our effort. We’re still learning but what I think really helps this group of kids is they like each other. They like being around and competing with each other,” Knights coach David Kohnen said. “I’m pleased at how we bounced back.
“After losing our first game we didn’t throw in the towel. We bounced back and played three pretty good games. We’ve still got a ways to go, but we are improving.”
Sophomore Myah Beckmann added 10 points for Mater Dei, which led 13-2 after one quarter and were never seriosuly threatened.
“They (Mount Vernon) came out in a triangle-and-two against us and I thought we did a good job of adujsting,” Kohnen said.
Highland 57, Belleville East 51
Ponce, who scored 16 points in the second half of the Bulldogs tquarterfinal win over O’Fallon, was back at it again against the Lancers as she scored 20 points after intermission to fuel the Highland win in the semifinals.
Tied at 20 at halftime, the Lancers outscored Highland 12-8 over the first six minutes of the third quarter and led 32-28 following a basket by senior Morgan St. James.
But Highland, keyed by Ponce and a 3-point basket by LaPorta to end the quarter, scored 17 of the next 19 points to take a 45-34 lead midway through the fourth period.
East, getting 13 points from Ellisha Davis and 11 from Jailyn McClenny, rallied to within four points but could get no closer.
Ponce led Highland with 24 points while Wellen added 13.
Central 45, Belleville West 31
The top-ranked Class 2A team in the state, Central rolled into the title game for the fourth straight year, wearing down West in the second half with relentless pressure and behind the scoring of Faye Meissner and all-stater Kendra Wilken.
West, which had lost to the Cougars in both the 2013 and 2014 title games, trailed 21-18 at halftime and cut the Central lead to a single point when freshman Chamya Darough scored to open the third quarter.
But Meissner, who led all scorers with 16 points and Wilken combined for 10 points in the third period as Central’s lead expanded to 33-26 heading into the final quarter.
West, which would get no closer then four points the rest of the way, was led by Darough’s nine points.
Wilken, a Saint Louis University recruit, added 15 points.
O’Fallon 62, Carbondale 53
Junior center Celeste Akoro broke a 53-all tie with a pair of free throws with just under 90 seconds remaining and O’Fallon went on for the win in the fifth place semifinals.
Senior Marta Durk paced the Panthers with 29 points while senior Achsar Greer led Carbondale (9-2) with 17 points.
Mascoutah 48, Centralia 24
The Indians forced five Annies turnovers in their first eight possessions — converting on four of them — and never looked back in the easy early morning win. Seniors Maddie Nekola (15 points) and Katie Jokisch (12) led the way for the Indians.