|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior Macy Gabbard lets a shot fly in Wednesday's game at Conner. Highlands won the LaRosa's Holiday Classic.|
But when the Highlands Ladybirds basketball players hesitated, it often led to a travel or other forms of a turnover. But in the clutch, senior 6-foot-1-inch forward McKenzie Leigh showed them how to come through.
Down one with less than 10 seconds left, Leigh took the ball from the right wing, dribbled into the paint and hit lay-up on the left side with 7.7 seconds left in the game to lift Highlands (10-2 overall) to a 47-46 victory over the host Conner Lady Cougars (10-4) in the LaRosa's Holiday Classic.
"I knew time was running out and we needed to get a bucket down one," Leigh said. "I saw the lane on the left and I prefer my left hand so I thought, 'I have to go for it and I have to get it up there. I can't hit the back of the backboard."
That marked the second time Highlands won the annual tournament in the last four years. The Ladybirds also won it in 2012 when Leah Schaefer, Jesse "Dirt" Daley, Ava Abner, Emilie Parton and Vanessa Fisse were seniors.
The format changed some this season. All eight teams received a guaranteed three games unlike four in previous years. Teams played in round-robin format before playing for a place in the past, but teams played in a tournament-style setting this year.
Seniors Brianna Adler and Haley Coffey started as freshmen on that 2012 team. But Coffey and freshman Zoie Barth did not play in the tournament because of injuries. But the Highlands bench outscored Conner, 13-0.
That left the ball handling duties to Adler, freshman Chloe Jansen and Leigh. Conner employed a lot of full and half-court pressure and forced 17 Highlands turnovers.
"I thought they did a great job these three games," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "We played eight this week and they stepped up and did well. I thought our bench did well. I had Emma Little, Lauren Epperson and Kiersten Clukey come off the bench and give us great minutes while two of our starters were out."
Just after Leigh's bucket, Macy Gabbard pressured the ball and it went out of bounds leaving just more than four seconds left on the clock. Highlands had two fouls to give and used one leaving 2.6 seconds left. After both teams called timeout, Taylor Gambrel put up a shot near half-court that hit high off the backboard to end the game.
Leigh finished with 13 points and seven rebounds. Izzy Schultz followed with 10 and Epperson had six. Jansen, Leigh and Epperson had two assists each for Highlands.
"When you think about it, you just get really nervous," Gabbard said. "You just have to go and not think about it. It really gets you going because you know you're helping out your team a lot. You make your teammates feel good about you. We all contribute to the team. When one person is not playing well, we all pick it up for them."
Gambrel led Conner with 17 points and post Caylee Duncan had 13. Hunter Hendricks had nine, but most of it came in the first quarter.
Conner put up 15 more shots because it had 10 fewer turnovers outscoring Highlands, 15-0 off the turnovers. But the Lady Cougars only made 19-of-57 shots for 33 percent, including just 2-of-16 from three-point range for 13 percent.
"We didn't want them to shoot a bunch of threes," Richey said. "If they did, they were going to have a hand in their face. We did a great job. We told the girls if we limit them to two's, we're going to be in great shape. But if we let them get a lot of looks from three, they're going to make them."
Conner likes to use a dribble-drive type offense compared to a motion offense for Highlands. The teams combined for just 20 fouls so they received eight free-throw tries each. Conner made six for 75 percent and Highlands hit four for 50 percent.
"If we know that they aren't that good of a shooter, we step back so we can cut them off easier if they drive," Epperson said. "We also play really good help side defense. When they drive, the person guarding the girl on the wing steps in if the person on the drive gets beat."
The game was tied at 40 entering the fourth quarter. But Leigh and Little buckets gave Highlands a 44-40 lead. Jansen hit a free throw with 2:53 to go to put Highlands up 45-42.
The Ladybirds passed the ball around near half-court. But Duncan recorded a steal and scored a wide-open lay-up with 1:17 left in the game.
After Highlands missed the front end of a one-and-one, Gambrel drove to the basket and drew a foul. Gambrel made both free throws with 36.4 seconds left to put Conner up 46-45.
Leigh finished as Tournament Most Valuable Player. Epperson, Adler and Gabbard made the all-tournament team.
Highlands does not play again until Saturday. The Ladybirds travel to Newport Central Catholic a 36th District game at 7:30 p.m.
Walton-Verona 50, Highlands 31
The Bluebirds fell to 2-4 with the loss.
Finneytown (Ohio) comes across the river Saturday. Game time is 4 p.m.