By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS – The winner of the 9th Region girls basketball tournament would most likely see someone turn in a game for the ages.
Unfortunately for the Blue and White, it came from the other side in the form of Olivia Voskuhl. The senior guard/forward and Cleveland State signee made 11-of-16 shots including 6-of-9 from three-point range to score 28 points and lead the Notre Dame Pandas to a 63-44 victory Monday at the Bank of Kentucky Center on the campus of Northern Kentucky University.
“Voskuhl just took over,” said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands head coach. “She was making shots with people in her face. It was a night she was unstoppable. We couldn’t do anything about it.”
The Pandas made 24-of-49 shots for 49 percent including 6-of-16 from three-point range for 38 percent. Notre Dame hit 61 percent (14-of-23) from the floor in the second half and 9-of-13 free-throw attempts for 69 percent overall.
Voskuhl had plenty of help. Paige Kellam added 12 points and Haylee Smith added 11.
“(Voskuhl) is a great shooter,” said Nicole Levandusky, Notre Dame head coach. “She has a sweet jump shot. She’s playing at the top of her game. You can’t ask for anything more.”
Notre Dame finished at the same point Highlands did a year ago falling 62-58 to Boone County in overtime. The Pandas came out on a mission of redemption this year and finished 16-0 in region play. They’ve won 15 in a row to move to 26-5. Notre Dame last won the region in 2007.
On the other hand, Highlands saw its 10-game winning streak snapped finishing 26-8 overall. The Bluebirds finished 16-3 in region play with two of those losses coming to the Pandas. Notre Dame won the regular-season meeting, 63-48 in Park Hills on Jan. 8.
“We told them Notre Dame is a very good team,” Richey said. “We can see them going into Saturday morning in the state tournament. They’re very long and solid. They move the ball extremely well and rebound. They got a lot of offensive rebounds that hurt us in the first half.”
This marked the first appearance for Highlands in the title game since 2002. The Bluebirds had played in nine straight region title games between 1994 and 2002. Richey led Highlands to region crowns in 1994, 1995 and 1996 and current Dixie Heights head coach Tara Boothe-Smith led the Bluebirds to titles in 2000 and 2001.
The Twin Towers gave valiant efforts in their final games for Highlands. Leah Schaefer scored 11 and Jesse “Dirt” Daley added nine. The duo joined the 1,000-point club earlier this year.
“(Notre Dame) is a great team,” Schaefer said. “They hit a lot of shots. We tried to keep pushing it for a while. We fought to the end. I couldn’t ask for a better team to play with. They’re awesome.”
The Bluebirds graduate six seniors. The other four are Emilie Parton, Ava Abner, Vanessa Fisse and Kelsey Clark. Parton scored seven.
Brianna Adler matched Schaefer with 11 points. Adler and point guard Haley Coffey will be the two returning starters for Highlands next year. Returning players like Alex Combs, McKenzie Leigh and Lydia Graves will be counted on to lead the team next year.
“Seeing how much (the seniors) wanted it will really motivate me because it makes me realize now that there’s no more practices, team bonding, games or anything,” Leigh said. “It makes me want (to win) all the more.”
Notre Dame outscored Highland, 1.12-.78 in points per possession. Highlands hit 13-of-43 shots for 30 percent including 4-of-13 three-point attempts for 31 percent. The Bluebirds made just 14-of-25 free-throw attempts for 56 percent.
“Our defense has been our key all year,” Levandusky said. “They bought into it. That’s the big thing. Defense wins championships.”
The Pandas won the rebounding battle, 38-18 including 13-5 on the offensive glass. Smith led Notre Dame with 11 rebounds for a double-double and Schaefer led Highlands with six.
Highlands turned up the pressure defensively to get back into the game. Notre Dame committed 15 turnovers to 10. The Bluebirds had eight steals to five for the Pandas. Schaefer and Parton led Highlands with two thefts each.
Highlands led just once in the game at 3-2. It came with 5:48 left in the first quarter after an Adler three-pointer.
The Pandas went on an 8-0 run to go up for good at 10-3. Notre Dame led 15-7 after the first quarter and 23-15 at halftime.
Highlands trimmed the margin to 30-26 with a 7-0 run. Parton hit a three-pointer before Schaefer drew a foul and the Notre Dame bench received a technical foul. But Highlands also missed four free throws during that run.
“We had our chances there,” Richey said. “We just couldn’t convert. You have to give the Notre Dame staff credit. They came out and made tough shots when they needed to.”
Kellam answered with two buckets for Notre Dame. After Adler made a three-pointer, Voskuhl exploded for 13 in a row to put the Pandas back up 47-29.
Highlands trimmed the margin to 48-36 halfway through the fourth quarter. But Notre Dame increased it to as much as 22 at 62-40 with 1:09 left in the game.
Notre Dame graduates just two seniors. They are Voskuhl and guard Kindsey Bernhard.