|G. Michael Graham Photo. Newport Central Catholic junior Loren Zimmerman (15) directs traffic in Tuesday's 9th Region quarterfinal contest. The Thoroughbreds downed Conner, 65-55 for their first region win since 2011.|
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS – The vaunted on-ball pressure defense of the Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds girls basketball team is no secret in the 9th Region.
But a simple halftime adjustment propelled the Thoroughbreds (27-4) to their first region win in three years, 65-55 over the Conner Lady Cougars (15-16) on Tuesday. The region site is again the Bank of Kentucky Center on the Northern Kentucky University campus.
Instead of pressuring Conner full-court, NewCath picked up its pressure at half-court. The Lady Cougars could not drive past them for easy shots. That let the Thoroughbreds erase a 10-point, 31-21 halftime deficit on their way to the win. NewCath had 13 turnovers and seven steals to six steals and 17 turnovers for Conner.
“I didn’t have to get on them too much (at halftime). They knew they had to play better,” said George Stoll, NewCath Head Coach. “But at the same time, it was almost like Conner shot 100 percent from the field in the first half. Every open shot they got, they made. That’s what good teams do. We were leaving them open a bit with our press and gambling some. It didn’t work out. Our depth helped us out. We guarded much better in the second half.”
NewCath had not won a region game since its last region crown in 2011. The Thoroughbreds lost in the district semifinals to Highlands last year and lost in the region quarterfinals to Boone County in 2012.
Conner made 17-of-46 shots total for 36 percent. The Lady Cougars made 12-of-21 in the first half for 57 percent but just 5-of-25 in the second half for 20 percent. They stayed in the game making 17-of-21 free throws for 81 percent.
In a tightly-called contest, Conner finished with 22 fouls to 19 for NewCath. The Thoroughbreds hit 16-of-26 free throws for 62 percent including 8-of-16 for 50 percent in the fourth quarter.
Despite a combined 41 fouls, only one player fouled out on either squad. That was Conner post Madi Meyers after scoring nine points.
“A lot of the fouls they called were fouls,” Stoll said. “We had to do a better job moving our feet and being in the right position. We did fine.”
NewCath made 23-of-52 shots from the field for 44 percent. The Thoroughbreds made three three-pointers.
Nikki Kiernan once again led NewCath with a double-double of 22 points and 13 rebounds. Kiernan has 1,806 points in her career. She made all eight free-throw attempts.
Kiernan had plenty of help in this contest as all five starters scored at least seven points. Point guard Michaela Ware followed with a double-double of 10 points and 11 assists.
The Thoroughbreds controlled the boards winning the rebounding battle, 40-26. Lewis also had 13 for NewCath matching Kiernan’s effort.
“I follow the ball, find the open spot, jump for it and get the rebound,” Lewis said. “Not everyone on their team was boxing out so I just went past them. It was really physical and you need to fight harder than you usually do.”
Conner saw two players reach double digits. That was Taylor Gambrel and Hunter Hendricks with 13 and 10 respectively. Gambrel made 9-of-11 free-throw tries.
NewCath used a 5-0 run early to go up 7-2 after a Sarah Neace three-pointer. Following a Meyer score, Conner called timeout. The Lady Cougars proceeded to go on a 14-0 run led by five points from Hendricks. Her three-pointer gave Conner a 16-7 advantage. But Ware scored with 24 seconse left to end the run. The Lady Cougars led 16-9 after the first quarter.
The teams exchanged baskets in the second quarter. Conner led by 10 five times in that quarter including the halftime score.
But NewCath quickly erased most of the lead quickly in the first few minutes of the second half. Davenport scored all seven of her points in the 9-0 run that trimmed Conner’s lead to 31-30 with 5:46 left in the half.
“(Those points) were crucial to help us start our run,” Davenport said. “They were doubling down on Nikki (Kiernan) and packing it in so someone had to start hitting shots. I thought I would try to step up and fill that role.”
The Thoroughbreds ties the game at 34 on a Ware score then took the lead at 36-34 with 3:37 left when Alexus Mayes hit a fast-break lay-up. Kiernan and Ware buckets gave NewCath a 40-34 advantage with 2:40 remaining in the quarter.
Conner rallied to tie the game at 44 when Meyers hit a three-point play with 49.1 seconds left. But Loren Zimmerman made a free throw with 34.1 seconds left to give NewCath a 45-44 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Gambrel tied the game at 50 with two free throws with 4:13 remaining. But NewCath took the lead for good with a 6-0 run. Kiernan made two free throws and an offensive putback and Lewis made a jumper.
Two Gambrel free throws trimmed the lead to 56-52 with 1:42 remaining. But NewCath pulled away with an 8-0 run. That run started with a Kiernan jumper. NewCath made 5-of-8 free throws in the final game’s final 1:21.
Next up for NewCath is a rematch with rival Covington Holy Cross (21-7) on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the semifinals. The Lady Indians downed Dixie Heights, 41-28 in the earlier game. NewCath won both meetings earlier this season with Holy Cross.