|G. Michael Graham Photos. The Highlands Ladybirds (top) and Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds (bottom) will play for the 36th District championship on Thursday at 7 p.m. Highlands won it last year.|
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
They are both not only going to the 9th Region Tournament.
The Highlands Ladybird and Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbred girls basketball teams are also both considered contenders to advance to Bowling Green. They are ranked in the top three in the region by many publications.
But the first order of business is winning the 36th District Tournament and getting potentially a better draw in the region quarterfinals to be played next week at the Bank of Kentucky Center on the Northern Kentucky University campus. Highlands won the district title last year before losing to Notre Dame in the 9th Region title game. NewCath won it the previous four years and won the 9th Region in 2011.
The game takes place at NewCath (25-4) on Thursday at 7 p.m. Highlands (22-6) earned the top seed with a 45-40 win on The Hill on Jan. 3. That marked the first win for the Ladybirds there since 1999.
“We’re going to have a battle,” said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. “It’s going to be a close game that could go either way. We’re going to have to bring our A game. We’re going to have to rebound better than we have been and we’re going to have to execute better than we have been on the offensive end of the court.”
Highlands has won eight of its last nine contests coming into the game. The Ladybirds have had different players produce big nights in different games. All five starters average at least 7.9 points per game with sophomore Brianna Adler leading the way at 10.9 a contest.
Highlands has shot free throws well all season. The Ladybirds have made 415-of-587 attempts for about 71 percent. Adler has made an impressive 88-of-107 for 82 percent. They’ve also hit 493-of-1,245 shots for 39 percent including 119-of-415 shots from three-point range for about 40 percent.
On the other side, NewCath returned all but one player from last year’s 20-win team coming into the season. The Thoroughbreds have won four in a row, but have struggled in big games. Senior Nikki Kiernan leads NewCath averaging just more than 16 points a contest.
NewCath entered the tournament having made 304-485 free-throw tries for 63 percent. The Thoroughbreds hit 593-of-1,497 shots for about 40 percent. That includes 119-of-393 three-point tries for 30 percent. Sarah Neace leads NewCath with 34 made three-pointers.
“(Outside shooting) is going to be really critical,” Davenport said. “When they start doubling down (on Kiernan), we have to start making some shots to help her out.”
In the Highlands win in January, Kiernan recorded a double-double of 12 points and 11 rebounds. But no one else scored more than eight for NewCath despite making five three-pointers.
“When we shoot it (well), we are tough to beat,” said George Stoll, NewCath Head Coach. “Nikki (Kiernan) is hopefully making (points) and we’re getting some from outside. When they have to extend the defense, that’s when we’re the toughest to beat.”
Alex Combs led Highlands in that contest scoring 14 and Adler had 10. But Lydia Graves came up with crucial plays down the stretch. Highlands knows containing Kiernan could be huge again if it is to repeat as district champions.
“I definitely think we need to pressure and be in the gaps for when we do trap,” said McKenzie Leigh, Highlands sophomore. “We might do that a lot. We also need to deflect as many balls as possible and stay in front when they drive.”
Highlands last won the region in 2001. Last year’s appearance in the region title game marked the first for the program since 2002.