|Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands post McKenzie Leigh (31) makes a move in Saturday's 9th Region semifianls.|
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS – It was a matter of breaking what some may perceive as a hex to advance to the title game for the second straight year.
But it didn’t happen.
The Notre Dame Pandas used their size and length to defeat the Highlands Ladybirds for the third straight year in all three rounds of the 9th Region Tournament, 46-39 Saturday in the semifinals. Notre Dame (22-8) has also beaten Highlands (23-8) seven straight times. The game took place at the Bank of Kentucky Center on the Northern Kentucky University campus.
“We told the girls we thought we played our hearts out,” said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. “We rebounded the best we’ve done all year. We just missed some opportunities on the offensive end that on Monday night we were able to execute. I thought we did a good job offensively. I couldn’t be more prouder of this group after losing six seniors and making it to the semifinals.”
Highlands tried playing through sophomore post McKenzie Leigh. She put together another outstanding game scoring 20 points and nabbing nine rebounds to go with a blocked shot. Leigh made 9-of-11 free-throw attempts. Teammate Alex Combs followed with 10 points and nine rebounds.
But the Ladybirds made just 11-of-41 shots for 27 percent including 2-of-10 three-point shots for 20 percent. The Pandas hit 16-of-40 shots for 40 percent including 2-of-12 three-point tries for 17 percent.
“We felt we had some great looks in the first half – lay-ups,” Richey said. “We all have to do a better job. When your two leading scorers only score two and we lose by seven, that shows how we’re a team. It’s not about one individual. We’re such a tough team to guard because we’re a team-oriented team.”
Both teams shot free throws well. Notre Dame hit 12-of-16 for 75 percent and Highlands made 15-of-21 for 71 percent.
“We pulled each of the kids aside individually and did different things with how we approached the free-throw line,” said Wyatt Faust, Notre Dame Head Coach. “We were probably shooting 50 percent there through Christmas. We knew that to win in the postseason, that had to change. We shot about 300 more a practice after Christmas.”
The Pandas saw two players hit double-digits as well in Sydney Stallman and Haylee Smith with 10 each. Elly Ogle and Paige Kellam followed with nine and eight respectively.
Highlands won the rebounding battle, 33-28. Notre Dame outscored Highlands, 6-5 in second-chance points.
Notre Dame led from start to finish. Stallman scored just 18 seconds into the game and the Pandas never looked back. They led 7-1 to start the game before Combs made a three-pointer and Leigh hit a lay-up in the center.
Following two more Notre Dame scores, Combs hit another lay-up. The Pandas led 11-8 after the first quarter.
The game stayed within five points in the second quarter. Carlee Clemons hit an offensive rebound to give Notre Dame a 13-8 advantage before Leigh hit one of her own. Following a Smith offensive putback, Lydia Graves made two free throws and Leigh hit a jumper on the left post to bring Highlands within one at 15-14 with 2:10 remaining.
After Smith scored, Leigh hit another free throw. That made the halftime score 17-15 in Notre Dame’s favor.
The Pandas scored the second half’s first two buckets before Leigh made a three-pointer to trim the margin to 21-18. Then after a Stallman triple, Highland made 5-of-6 free throws to pull within one at 24-23 with four minutes remaining.
Notre Dame led just 29-26 entering the fourth quarter. Following an Avery Henderson score and Stallman triple, Leigh made an old-fashioned three-point play.
The Pandas pulled away to start the fourth quarter with two quick buckets. They made four free throws following two Leigh free throws to go up 37-28 with 2:26 left in the game.
“I thought (the officials) let a lot go,” Faust said. “They called a lot of things off the drive. But on the ball and on cuts, there weren’t a lot. We had to be tough with the basketball there. We were trying to find a really good shot while playing through what we felt like were fouls. The kids continued to play hard and didn’t complain.”
Highlands didn’t make its first field goal of the quarter until 1:59 remained in the game. Haley Coffey made a lay-up and Highlands trailed 41-32 at that point.
The Ladybirds appear in good shape to be a region contender next year as well as everyone returns except Tomi Blanton. Brianna Adler and Haley Coffey have started these last two seasons.
“We were really young this year,” Coffey said. “Next year, we’ll have another year under our belt so we’re going to get a lot more experience. (Coming this far) was great because no one thought we could do it.”
On the other side, Notre Dame graduates five seniors. They are Louisiana State volleyball commit Ogle, Clemons, Henderson, Kellam and Jacqueline Schuh.