|G. Michael Graham Photo. Highlands junior Lydia Graves (20) makes a move against Newport Central Catholic forward Alexus Mayes (middle) in Friday's game on The Hill. Highlands won 45-40 for its first win there since 1999.|
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
NEWPORT – The latest trend in the regular season in this 36th District rivalry is to be the underdog on the road.
In a reversed role from last year, the Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team came into Friday’s game on the Hill against the undefeated Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds in that underdog role. But Highlands pulled off a huge 45-40 district victory for its second straight win in the series.
NewCath came to Fort Thomas last year and won 56-54. But Highlands later ended NewCath’s season with a 48-40 win in the district semifinals. That snapped NewCath’s eight-game winning streak in the series.
Highlands also won on the Hill for the first time since a 55-36 win on Feb. 25, 1999 in the district championship. NewCath had won the previous eight meetings at home, including the seven meetings since Jaime Walz-Richey became Highlands Head Coach in 2002.
The Bluebirds (9-2 overall, 2-0 district) did it with primarily a 2-3 zone defense. They made sure Thoroughbred posts Nikki Kiernan and Alexus Mayes did not get anything easy in the paint and kept Michaela Ware from penetrating for lay-ups. Highlands outscored NewCath, 6-2 in the paint.
“The girls listened to the game plan and didn’t get rattled when they went up a couple (points),” Richey said. “We knew who we wanted to shoot and who we didn’t want to get the ball. They made a couple threes early and we told the girls to let those people shoot.”
Kiernan finished with a double-double of 12 points and 11 rebounds. But no one else scored more than seven for NewCath. Highlands held Mayes to four.
NewCath (10-1, 2-1) could not hit enough outside shots to make Highlands extend its defense. The Thoroughbreds made 16-of-56 shots for 28 percent including 5-of-26 from three-point range for 19 percent and the Bluebirds made 15-of-38 shots for 40 percent with no three-pointers on seven tries.
“We struggled stepping up and hitting outside shots,” said George Stoll, NewCath Head Coach. “Forty points is not very good. We gave up 45 points which is not bad at all. When (opponents) take away (Mayes and Kiernan), other girls have to step up and make some shots. That’s the bottom line.”
Both teams saw seven players score each. But Highlands put two players in double-digits. Junior post Alex Combs made all six free throws on her way to 14 points and sophomore Brianna Adler made 4-of-5 on her way to 10 points.
Highlands committed just eight fouls to 15 for the hosts and the Bluebirds made the most of their free throws. They hit 15-of-22 for 68 percent compared to 3-of- 7 for 43 percent for the Thoroughbreds.
The Bluebirds edged the Thoroughbreds in the rebounding departments, 36-34. Combs and McKenzie Leigh led Highlands with six each. That was not the case for Highlands in the loss Saturday to Bishop Brossart in the Conner State Farm Classic title game.
“We were pretty confident,” said Lydia Graves, Highlands junior. “We just had to find a girl and box her out. We felt we could put in our free throws if they fouled us.”
Highlands also handled NewCath’s vaunted on-ball pressure defense. The Bluebirds turned the ball over 14 times and recorded seven steals and the Thoroughbreds turned it over 10 times and made just six steals. Adler led Highlands with four thefts and Kiernan led NewCath with two.
“The nerves are there in the beginning,” said Zoie Barth, Highlands guard. “But after tip-off, you have to be yourself, play your game and not play their game. We knew we needed to come out strong and jump on top of them fast. We knew we could do it.”
The game stayed close the entire way. Neither team led by more than four points entering the final quarter tied at 31.
Highlands used a 6-0 run to go up 37-31. Graves spearheaded it for the Bluebirds with a three-point play hitting a jumper and making 1-of-2 free throws. But NewCath came back and tied it at 37 with 2:37 left in the game when Ware scored in the middle of the paint.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Lydia Graves,” Richey said. “A green light went off and she took the ball strong to the basket. We told the girls if they press us, we have five ball handlers that can take the ball to the basket.”
Highlands pulled away for good with an 8-0 run. Combs led the way making four free throws and a lay-up on the right side. Graves had a crucial rebound and made two free throws with 6.4 seconds left before Zimmerman hit a three-pointer at the buzzer.
Both teams return to action today. Highlands takes on Green County (5-4) in the Centria Metals/Staxx BBQ Shootout at Franklin County at 1 p.m. today. NewCath faces Lloyd Memorial (4-3) at 7:30 p.m. back on The Hill.