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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Ladybirds open 9th Region Tourney against defending state champs

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands freshman Chloe Jansen brings the ball up the court in Thursday's 36th District championship game against Newport. Highlands takes on Covington Holy Cross in the 9th Region quarterfinals Monday at 6:30 BB&T Arena in Highland Heights.
One could hardly complain about how the Blue and White have been playing lately.

The Highlands Ladybirds basketball team (21-10 overall) hit the 20-win plateau for the fourth straight year with seven wins in their last eight games and won the 36th District championship for the third time in four seasons with an 81-58 win over Newport on Thursday. The only blemish came at the buzzer in a 60-57 defeat at Simon Kenton to finish the regular season.

Highlands hopes to continue playing well entering the 9th Region Tournament. It will take on the 35th District runner-up and defending state champion Covington Holy Cross Lady Indians (16-11) to open the tournament Monday. Game time is 6:30 p.m. at BB&T Arena on the Northern Kentucky University campus.

"They are focused," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "That's a tribute to the girls getting ready for a postseason run. That's when you want to be playing your best basketball. We have to play our game and worry about our sets. That's the approach we'll take for Monday night's game."

The Ladybirds will need to avenge a regular season loss to the Lady Indians to advance to the region semifinals five days later. Holy Cross came to Fort Thomas and handed the Ladybirds a 43-36 defeat on Jan. 19. Highlands has made the region semifinals the last three seasons.

That loss came during a stretch that saw Highlands lose six times in seven games against solid competition. That included defeats at 35th champion Covington Holmes and 33rd champion Ryle.

Holy Cross has lost four of its last six games. But the Lady Indians did defeat the Notre Dame Pandas, 41-37 Wednesday to make it back to the region tournament.

The Lady Indians defeated the Ladybirds, 49-32 in the region semifinals last year. In addition to capturing the 9th Region and state championships, Holy Cross also won the All "A" State Tournament. Holy Cross graduated four players off that team that won the first-ever girls basketball state championship from the 9th Region.

"It was a difficult situation for our kids," said Kes Murphy, Holy Cross Head Coach. "They got everyone's best game based on what we had done the year prior and that's tough because it's a totally different team. We lost a lot of our rebounding and the majority of our scoring. We've asked kids that have not been in starting roles to step up and maintain what we've established. The fact that we've been able to do that with such young kids and to get back to a regional tournament with young kids to get that experience is huge for us."

That marked just the second time in 13 years that neither Notre Dame, Boone County nor Newport Central Catholic won the region. None of those three made the region tournament this year. The only other time another team won the region tournament came in 2008 when Conner won it.

Dajah McClendon led Holy Cross averaging 14 points per game and Aleah Tucker was second with 10.1 points per game entering the 35th championship game. Holy Cross has outscored the competition, 1,362-1,254.

"McClendon is a great on-the-ball defender," Richey said. "She can get to the rim. We have to know where she is and make their post players work a little bit harder and not give up easy shots. We also have to make it one shot and done for them."

Highlands has won with balanced scoring. Four starters average at least 7.9 points per game. Freshman Zoie Barth makes things happen attacking the rim. Barth averages a team-high 12.4 points per game. Barth has made 104-of-128 free throws for 81.3 percent.

Senior Brianna Adler is second for Highlands averaging 11.6 points per game. Adler has hit 103-of-130 free throws for 79 percent and a team-high 45-of-130 three-point shots for about 35 percent.

Senior McKenzie Leigh is third with 9.8 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per game and Coffey averages 7.9 points. Leigh has given Highlands an inside threat to compliment the outside game three years now.

But in tournament time, contributions often come from least expected players. Senior Izzy Schultz along with juniors Macy Gabbard, Lauren Epperson and freshman Chloe Jansen could provide that spark. Epperson is tied with Barth for second on the team with 23 three-pointers made and is second with 87 rebounds.

"They've got a lot of experience," Murphy said. "They're a solid team - well-coached, very disciplined. This time of the year no matter who you play, when you're fighting for the life of your team, any game is going to be difficult. It's a matter of coming out, being focused, staying disciplined and executing."

As a team Highlands has made 547-of-1,343 shots for 40.7 percent including 168-of-524 from three-point range for 32 percent. The Ladybirds have also made 449-of-608 free throws for 73.8 percent. The Ladybirds have outscored opponents, 1,723-1,312.

Highlands has lost to a team from the 35th District in the last four region tournaments. That includes a loss to eventual state runner-up Notre Dame in the 2013 title game. The Ladybirds finished 2-3 against teams from that district this year. They are seeking their first region crown since 2001.

The winner places at Noon on March 5 against either Ryle or St. Henry. The championship game is Sunday at 6 p.m.

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