At a time when the Highland Bulldogs could have wilted, they simply refused on Saturday at Redbird Arena.
Off to a slow start for the second straight day, Highland cut an early 11-point deficit to three at halftime then used an 18-0 run in the third quarter to take command as it went on for a 62-51 win over Chicago Morgan Park in the third-place game of the Class 3A Girls State Basketball Tournament.
The top-ranked Class 3A team in the state for much of the season, Morgan Park used three 3-point field goals from all-stater Gabrielle Cooper to take early command. But trailing by as many as 11 points, Highland (31-5) scored the final eight points of the second quarter and trailed just 28-25 at halftime.
But that was only the beginning for the Bulldogs.
Getting eight points from junior Alex LaPorta and six from senior Amanda Ponce, Highland went on an 18-0 scoring run in the third quarter to take command of the game. Highland built a 43-32 lead and held a 43-34 advantage after three quarters.
Morgan Park closed to within seven points twice in the final quarter but could get no closer as Ponce, LaPorta and junior Madison Wellen clinched the third-place trophy with good free throw shooting in the closing four minutes.
“We knew coming in to today that we would either end up 31-5 or 30-6. I’m telling you 31-5 sounds much better,” a smiling Bulldogs coach Mike Arbuthnot said. “Of all the girls basketball teams in the state, only two of them can say they ended their season with a win. The state champion and the team which places third. It’s nice to know that we’re one of those two.”
After receiving their third-place medals and trophy, the Bulldogs headed home late Saturday afternoon where they were honored with a victory ride on a Highland fire truck beginning at the high school.
And thanks to its big three of Ponce, Wellen and LaPorta — as well as another excellent effort from Rece Portell — the Bulldogs’ storybook season has a happy ending. After a crushing double overtime loss to (Chicago) North Lawndale in the semifinals on Friday, the Bulldogs found a way to get it done again on Saturday.
“It was tough to lose the way we did yesterday, but I have a lot of faith in this team. I knew we would come back strong today,” Wellen said. “It wasn’t difficult to get back up today. We didn’t want to come in here and lose lose, but we came back and played well.”
But with Cooper, a first-team all-state selection, canning three NBA range 3-point shots and Mia Bradley scoring seven of her nine points, the Mustangs (30-5) built a 28-17 lead with 2:01 left in the first half.
Following Lamarria Johnson’s offensive rebound and basket, Ponce canned a 3-point jumper, Wellen sneaked inside for a soft jumper and LaPorta, held without a field goal up to that point, connected on two straight 10-foot jumpers as the Mustangs’ lead was cut to 28-25 at halftime.
“I felt that was the turning point in the game. We were down 11 and being able to close the deficit to three points at halftime was big for us,” Arbuthnot said. “We were able to get the momentum and then carry it over to the second half.”
But not right away.
Perhaps sensing the game was getting away from them, the Mustangs came out ready to go in the third quarter. Bradley scored on a layup and Cachet Johnson added a free throw line jumper as Morgan Park took a 32-25 lead just 52 seconds into the second half.
But Morgan Park would not score again until 1:13 remained in the period. By that time, Highland led 43-32 and was in firm control of the game.
“We just didn’t play like we have all year,” Morgan Park coach Kenondica Taylor said. “We didn’t rebound at all and while we had spurts where we didn’t play bad defense, we really struggled on offense. This is the state tournament you are playing against the best. You have to be at your best all the time and we just didn’t do that.”
LaPorta, who finished with a game-high 20 points and 11 rebounds — her second double-double in as many days — was at her best in the third quarter.
Ponce, who finished with 19 points, got the run with two free throws and a layup and when senior Caitlin Lammers scored on a layup, Highland was within 32-31. Wellen then scored two of her 17 points with 5:15 left in the third quarter to give Highland its first lead of the game at 33-32.
LaPorta followed with three straight hoops and when Ponce hit a jumper, the run was complete and Highland held a 43-32 lead with 1:30 left in the quarter.
“This team has a lot of character,” Arbuthnot said. “Here you’ve got a team which lost a tough game to North Lawndale in double overtime the day before. After something like that there might have been several teams who would have said the heck with it and not been ready to play today. But not this group of girls.”
Not to be forgotten on Saturday was Highland sophomore Rece Portell. The girl who hit a 3-point jumper at the end of regulation on Friday to force overtime against North Lawndale, Portell took on the assignment of guarding Cooper in the second half. Headed to Syracuse University next year, Cooper was 4-of-6 from the floor in the first half, but with Portell in her face for the final two periods, Cooper finished with 18 points but was just 7 of 18 from the floor.
“Rece did a great job on Cooper,” Arbuthnot said. “At halftime we made the decision to put Rece on her. We were letting her shoot wide open 3-point shots in the first half. We just decided that if she’s going to beat us, lets make her at least take the ball to the basket.”