|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Newport Central Catholic's Sarah Neace shoots one in the regular season meeting at Highlands on Jan. 3.|
NEWPORT – Past evidence gives many good reasons these two rivals do not take anything for granted against each other in the postseason despite the regular season result.
That includes the past two years when the team that lost the regular season girls basketball matchup came back and won the postseason game. But the top-seeded Highlands Ladybirds (29-3 overall) entered the 36th District championship game determined to not let that happen and held off the Newport Central Catholic
Thoroughbreds, 49-39 on Thursday at Newport High. That marked Highlands’ second district title in three seasons.
“One thing I told the girls before the game is we’re not going to have any blowout games,” said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. “It’s going to be two and three-point games and we can’t get rattled. I thought we did a good job of not getting rattled when they cut it to six.”
NewCath (19-12) had won five of the previous six district titles. The Thoroughbreds won the 9th Region title after beating the Ladybirds for the district crown.
Highlands won last year’s regular season contest before NewCath came back and beat the Ladybirds in the district championship. Two years ago, NewCath won in Fort Thomas before Highlands eliminated the Thoroughbreds from the postseason in the district semifinals in the final year of the blind draw.
Highlands again used its size to win the championship. But NewCath played better defensively to keep the game close. The Ladybirds dominated the regular season contest, 62-31 on Jan. 3 in Fort Thomas.
“We struggled to score in this game,” said George Stoll, NewCath Head Coach. “We just missed too many open shots. We had some good looks that we missed. They got some good looks and made them. That was the difference in the game.”
Highlands won the rebounding battle, 32-16 limiting NewCath to one most of the time with no second-chance points. Lydia Graves and McKenzie Leigh had seven each to lead the Ladybirds.
“You have to go after every ball,” said Alex Combs, Highlands senior post. “Usually, we have one person back so everyone else is crashing and hustling after the ball.”
The Thoroughbreds outscored the Ladybirds, 11-2 in points off turnovers. They had eight steals on 16 Highlands turnovers to six turnovers on four Ladybird steals. Michaela Ware led NewCath with five steals and 14 points.
“We knew they were going to press,” Richey said. “We just didn’t execute the way we usually do. We’ll watch some film and make sure we don’t do that in the regional tournament.”
The Thoroughbreds took 11 more shots, but hit a lower percentage. They hit 14-of-41 shots for 34 percent, including 3-of-19 from three-point range for 16 percent. The Ladybirds made 16-of-30 shots for 53 percent, including 6-of-11 three-pointers for 55 percent. Highlands outscored NewCath, 1.22-.81 in points per shot.
Highlands also made more free throws connecting on 11-of-20 for 55 percent. NewCath made 8-of-14 for 57 percent.
Highlands saw three players score in double figures. Tournament Most Valuable Player Brianna Adler made all four three-point attempts on her way to 16 points with Haley Coffey and Leigh scoring 13 each.
Leigh often scored when she touched the ball in the paint. Coffey and Leigh also made the all-tournament team.
NewCath placed two in double digits. After Ware, junior Ansley Davenport scored 10. Ware and Loren Zimmerman made the all-tournament team for the Thoroughbreds.
Highlands did a better job distributing the ball with nine assists to one for NewCath. Adler, Graves, Leigh and Combs had two assists each.
The Ladybirds scored the game’s first eight points and never looked back. Leigh scored inside and Adler made two three-pointers against NewCath’s extended 2-3 zone defense.
“We knew they were going to zone us,” Adler said. “A lot of teams do that. I didn’t think I was going to be open much so I just shot when I could.”
Following two Ware scores, Leigh scored inside again and Coffey made a three-pointer with 2:50 left in the quarter to give Highlands a 13-4 advantage. Highlands led 13-4 after one quarter.
NewCath cut the margin to five four times in the second quarter. The Thoroughbreds could have come closer but missed two free throws late in the half. Adler answered with a three and Leigh hit two free throws before Lexy Breen made a triple as time expired for NewCath. Highlands led 27-20 at halftime.
The Ladybirds tried to pull away in the third. The lead increased to double digits when Combs scored five in a row. Another Adler triple gave Highlands its largest lead of 37-24 with 3:40 left in the third. But NewCath scored seven straight starting with a Sarah Neace three to trail just 37-31 entering the fourth quarter.
Highlands slowly built the lead to 13 twice in the fourth quarter. NewCath did not make a field goal in that quarter until Ware made a jumper with 38.7 seconds left.
“The thing we learned from it is we can compete with teams,” Stoll said. “If we want to beat the best teams in the region, we have to play our absolute best.”
The 9th Region Tournament takes place at the Bank of Kentucky Center on the campus of Northern Kentucky University next week. Highlands will battle a district runner-up. That could be Covington Holmes (28-2) out of the 35th, Boone County (17-13) from the 33rd or the loser of Friday’s 34th District title game between Dixie Heights (14-13) or St. Henry (15-14).
NewCath will face that winner, All “A” State champion Covington Holy Cross (26-3) or Ryle (15-11). The biggest challengers for both teams appear to be from the 35th.