Monday, February 29, 2016

Ladybirds clutch in taking down defending state champs

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands freshman Zoie Barth (14) makes her move to the basket while Covington Holy Cross junior Zyah Beal (24)  moves in. Barth scored 14 points as Highlands advanced in the 9th Region Tournament at BB&T Arena in Highland Heights.
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS - Clutch time belonged to the Blue and White in the 9th Region quarterfinals Monday against the defending state champions.

The Highlands Ladybirds basketball team (22-10) hit the crucial shots and kept the Covington Holy Cross Lady Indians (16-12) off the scoreboard in the game's final two minutes and 25 seconds on their way to a 52-44 victory at the BB&T Arena on the Northern Kentucky University campus. Highlands outscored Holy Cross, 10-1 during that stretch to pull away.

This marks the fourth straight region quarterfinal victory for Highlands. The Ladybirds lost to the Lady Indians. 49-32 in the 9th Region semifinals last year. Holy Cross had won the previous three meetings including a 43-36 loss in Fort Thomas on Jan. 19.

Highlands faces 33rd District champion Ryle Lady Raiders (23-6) in the semifinals Saturday at Noon. Ryle handled 34th District runner-up St. Henry (13-19), 61-32. The title game takes place Sunday at 6 p.m.

Highlands freshman point guard Zoie Barth made 6-of-8 free throws on her way to a team-high 14 points and had a crucial steal in the final two minutes. Barth has not been afraid to challenge opponents driving the lane all season.

"We knew we had to get two-pointers because when we rely too much on three's and we're not on, that can hurt us," Barth said. "We knew we had to be the aggressors and get in the lane. When they came in on the help side, then we can kick it out to our shooters. Going into the lane not afraid really helped the team."

Barth made a free throw with 1:34 left in the game to put the Ladybirds up 45-43 before chasing down a loose ball and drawing a foul. Barth made both free throws to put Highlands up 47-43 with 1:16 left in the game.

Highlands fourth and fifth-year starting seniors Haley Coffey and Brianna Adler scored 13 and 12 points respectively and third-year starting senior McKenzie Leigh scored all nine of her points in the fourth quarter.

"You can tell they're great senior leaders," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "They're going to do everything they can to win the game. I also thought we did a better job of rebounding the ball in the fourth quarter."

Following Barth's two free throws, Holy Cross junior guard Dajah McClendon attacked the basket but missed the tough shot and Leigh grabbed one of her six rebounds. Coffey made a free throw to put Highlands up 48-43. Following turnovers by both teams, Holy Cross threw the ball out of bounds and Leigh made two free throws to give Highlands a 50-43 advantage with 18.7 seconds left. Coffey hit two with 5.7 seconds left and McClendon one with 13.2 to make the final score.

McClendon finished with 12 points for Holy Cross and eighth-grader Malaysia Chames finished with 10. Chames finished with a double-double of 10 rebounds as Holy Cross won that battle, 34-23. Luckily for Highlands, Holy Cross outscored the Ladybirds, 9-7 in second-chance points. But Highlands did get Chames into foul trouble in the fourth quarter.

"(Chames is) tall and can block shots when she is in there," Leigh said. "We have to lean into (the tall posts) in order to finish shots and get to the free throw line."

Holy Cross led most of the3 game using an 8-0 run to go up 14-5 with 1:15 left in the first quarter. The Lady Indians led 14-8 after the first quarter. Highlands crept to within one twice in the second. But Holy Cross made crucial shots and a free throw to stay up 24-22 at halftime.

Highlands grabbed the lead for the first time with 5:56 left in the third quarter, 29-27 after a Coffey three-pointer. But freshman guard Olivia Crigler promptly gave it back to Holy Cross with a three-pointer. The Lady Indians led 38-31 before Lauren Epperson scored to cut the lead to 38-33 entering the fourth quarter.

The Highlands rally started with an Adler offensive rebound. She then made two free throws before Leigh hit a jumper with 5:26 left in the game to put Highlands up 39-38. After Crigler made another three-pointer, Leigh hit an old-fashioned three-point play to put Highlands back up 42-41. Leigh then responded to a Zyah Beal score with two free throws with 2:25 left in the game setting up the clutch heroics.

"We'd go up one then give up a three to Crigler," Richey said. "Finally once we got the lead, we were able to spread them out and get to the free-throw line where we usually do a good job."

The Ladybirds once again won the game at the free-throw line making 20-of-25 for 80 percent compared to 6-of-13 for 46 percent for the Lady Indians. Leigh made all five free throws for Highlands.

The shooting percentages were almost the same. Highlands made 15-of-41 shots for 37 percent including 2-of-14 three-point tries for 14 percent. Holy Cross hit 17-of-48 shots for 35 percent including 4-of-12 three-pointers for 33 percent.

Highlands hopes to break a two-game losing streak in the region semifinals. The Ladybirds lost to Notre Dame in the semifinals two years ago after beating Ryle in the semfinals and losing to Notre Dame in the title game in 2013. The Ladybirds last won the region in 2001.

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