In a game that will go down as one of the greatest in IHSA Girls State Basketball Tournament history, the Highland Bulldogs finally ran out of miracles, comebacks and time on Friday at Redbird Arena.
Chicago North Lawndale’s Jada Thorpe scored off a Highland turnover with 1 minute 59 seconds remaining in the second overtime and the Phoenix made four of six free throws in the closing 40 seconds to defeat Highland 59-57 in an epic Class 3A State Tournament semifinal contest.
With both the Bulldogs (30-5) and North Lawndale (23-11) making their state tournament debut, play was slow in the early going of the opening game of the ‘16 state finals. But when Ponce gave Highland its first lead of the day with a buzzer-beater to end the first half, the show was just beginning as two of the top teams in the state played a second half and two overtime sessions for the ages.
Highland provided most of the dramatic plays. A 3-point jumper by sophomore Rece Portell with three seconds left in regulation tied the game at 42 and senior all-stater Amanda Ponce hit a layup and then made two free throws with nine seconds left in the first overtime to rally the Bulldogs once again.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
The Bulldogs hopes got a little brighter early in the second overtime when Ponce, who led all scorers with 24 points, along with Emmy Nyquist each made a pair of free throws as Highland took a 54-51 lead.
But it didn’t last.
It wasn’t until the Phoenix’ Kia Brooks made a free throw with a second left and a length-of-the-court shot by the Bulldogs fell well short as time expired that North Lawndale had officially ended the Bulldogs state title dreams.
Brooks, whose 14-foot jumper with 2:37 left in the second overtime period cut Highland’s lead to 54-53, was one of three North Lawndale players to make free throws in the closing 40 seconds of the game. Jada Thorpe made two free throws and Dashoney Bibbie made one free throw for the Phoenix with the game on the line.
“We tried to foul the players who were shooting 50-60 percent from the line and hope they missed,” Bulldogs coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “To their credit, they made them.”
And because of that and a combined 34 points from Brooks and Thorpe, its North Lawndale which will play in the title game at 1:45 p.m. Saturday against defending state champion Morton which defeated Morgan Park 54-39 in the second semifinal.
Highland (30-5) will play Morgan Park in the third-place game beginning at noon.
“This was a great basketball game played between two great teams, one that we were proud to be a part of,’’ North Lawndale coach Corey Morgan said. “I think a big part of us winning this game was because we didn’t panic when we got down. ... But today when the game got tight and we needed to make plays in the end, we did.”
Playing on the biggest stage in Illinois high school basketball for the first timer, Highland was nervous early. North Lawndale jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead and the Bulldogs didn’t get on the scoreboard until 2:12 remained in the first quarter on a jumper by Ponce.
North Lawndale led 12-6 after one-quarter when DeAsa Almon hit a 3-point jumper.
But with Ponce scoring 11 of her 24 points in the first two-quarters and both Caitlin Lammers and Madison Wellen scoring four points, Highland battled back, taking a 19-18 leaf when Ponce scored at the halftime horn.”
Still, Arbuthnot said the Bulldogs slow start could have been a key.
“There were a couple of possessions I would have liked to have gotten back. But for the most part, I thought we executed the way we had hoped coming into the game,” Arbuthnot said. “I’m sure we were a little nervous early.”
In a see-saw third quarter it was the Bulldogs who struck first. Wellen opened the period with a 3-point field goal and after Brooks cut the lead to 22-20, Alex LaPorta scored on a free throw and offensive rebound, Highland had its biggest lead of the afternoon at 25-20 with 6:03 left in the third quarter.
The Phoenix responded with a 12-4 run the rest of the quarter and led 32-29 with eight minutes left in regulation.
Things got a little bleaker for a large group of Highland fans and students which made the 2 1/2 hour journey north, when Almon made another 3-point shot gave North Lawndale a 39-35 lead with 2:47 left.
With a four-point lead, North Lawndale attempted to slow the pace even more but Portell, off a nice pass from Wellen, scored to bring Highland back to within two points.
LaPorta cut the lead to 40-39 with a layup with 29 seconds remaining, but Brooks made two free throws as the Bulldogs deficit went back to three points, setting the stage for Portell’s dramatics
After a timeout, Highland, under intense pressure from the Phoenix, ran the clock down with Portell getting the ball on the left side of the circle. Then with a defender closely guarding her, the 5-6 sharpshooter made the jumper of her life as she extended the game another four minutes.
As the ball went through the net, Portell jumped in the air in celebration and was mobbed as by her teammates as the horn sounded to end regulation.
“I got the ball and took the shot,” Portell said. “My thoughts when it went in? I couldn’t believe I made it.”
In overtime, it was Ponce’ time to shine. Hitting a basket following a missed free throw by LaPorta, then making two free throws with nine seconds left to send the game on to a second overtime.
Brooks led North Lawndale with 21 points, while Jada Thorpe added 13. Wellen chipped in with nine to go along with Ponce’ 24 points for Highland. LaPorta added eight points and a game-high 13 rebounds.