|G. Michael Graham Photo. Highlands point guard Haley Coffey dribbles against St. Henry's Karly Lehmkuhl (32) in Monday's 9th Region quarterfinal contest. The Ladybirds won 67-52 to advance to the region semifinals for the second straight year.|
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS – It was simply a matter of time.
The Highlands Ladybirds (23-7) trapped the St. Henry Lady Crusaders (18-12) all over the court in Monday’s 9th Region Quarterfinal game. That pressure ultimately hurt the Lady Crusaders in a 67-52 victory at the Bank of Kentucky Center on the Northern Kentucky University campus.
This marks the first time in Head Coach Jaime Walz-Richey’s tenure that Highlands has won consecutive region quarterfinal contests and the first time since 2001 and 2002. Highlands knocked off Covington Holmes in last year’s quarterfinals on its way to a region runner-up finish last year.
“Each team is different,” Richey said. “I’m just happy for these girls. We have some unfinished business we’re trying to take care of with this group.”
The Ladybirds had great balance in the win. Sophomore McKenzie Leigh led the way with an astounding 21 points taking advantage of a mismatch. She made three three-pointers and 10-of-12 free-throw attempts.
Highlands made nine three-pointers in the win. Brianna Adler and Alex Combs made two each on their way to 17 and 13 points respectively.
“When we got (St. Henry post Savannah) Neace in foul trouble, we kind of put a damper in them,” Richey said. “We took advantage of McKenzie in the low post. She had one heck of a game. She came out on fire from the three-point line and was able to finish inside some. We told the girls we’re a hard team to guard, especially on this big court. If we’re making shots from outside like that, we’re tough. I thought everyone stepped up and played well.”
Lydia Graves and Kiersten Clukey made one triple each. Graves finished with 10 points.
“We need to be strong on the inside and outside,” Combs said. “(Leigh) stepped it up and going into her gives us both opportunities to drive, dish and shoot threes.”
Highlands didn’t make free throws near its season average of 70 percent. But the Ladybirds made enough to pull away down the stretch hitting 12-of-18 in the fourth quarter for 67 percent and 26-of-40 for 65 percent.
“It was a matter of getting more comfortable at the line,” Graves said. “In this big gym, the rim seems smaller than it normally is. Once we adjusted to that, we were fine.”
St. Henry had 25 fouls to 22 for Highlands. The Lady Crusaders made 18-of-24 free throws for 75 percent. Two Ladybirds fouled out to one Lady Crusader.
St. Henry saw one player reach double-digits in Jordan Miller with 13 points. Neace followed with nine points.
The game stayed tight in the first quarter. Leigh hit a three-pointer to give the Ladybirds an 8-4 advantage with 4:56 left in the first quarter.
But St. Henry fought back to go ahead 11-8. Miller scored five straight during that run.
The Ladybirds answered with a 5-0 run to go up 13-11. Combs tied the game with a three-pointer and Zoie Barth recorded a steal and score.
After St. Henry tied the game on a Karly Lehmkuhl offensive rebound, Clukey hit a three-pointer to put Highlands up 16-13with 10 seconds left in the quarter. But Lehmkuhl hit another triple as time expired to tie the game at 16 after the first quarter.
Highlands took the lead for good with 4:40 left in the second quarter after a Combs score. She made a triple 20 seconds later to put the Ladybirds up 28-23.
Highlands led by nine twice in the final 1:02. Adler made two free throws with 9.1 seconds left to put the Ladybirds up 38-29 at halftime.
The Ladybirds started the third quarter with a 5-0 run to go up 43-29 with 6:50 left. Adler made a triple and Leigh two free throws.
But St. Henry responded with a 6-0 run to trim the margin to 43-35 with 5:28 left. Neace scored two baskets during that run.
Highlands extended the lead back to double-digits. The Ladybirds finished the quarter with a 5-0 run on an Adler three and two more Leigh free throws. Highlands led 55-38 entering the final quarter.
The Ladybirds hit their largest lead to start the fourth quarter. Two more Leigh free throws gave them a 57-38 lead with 7:14 left in the game.
Highlands went to a triangle look and held the ball near mid-court. The Ladybirds only shot wide-open lay-ups at that point.
The Lady Crusaders made a run scoring five straight to cut the margin to 58-48 with 2:38 left in the game. But they came no closer after that point.
Highlands plays in the semifinals on Saturday at 6 p.m. The Ladybirds face Notre Dame in a rematch of last year’s region title game.