|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior point guard Haley Coffey (right) goes up for a tough shot against two Ryle defenders in Saturday's 9th Region semifinal loss. Coffey is one of four seniors to graduate from this year's 22-11 squad.|
The Highlands Ladybirds basketball team executed a smooth game plan of spreading the floor offensively and keeping the Ryle Lady Raiders (24-6 overall) in front of them defensively. Unfortunately, Highlands (22-11) came up several plays short losing 54-51 in the 9th Region semifinals at BB&T Arena on Saturday.
"I think we gave it our best try to beat Ryle," said Izzy Schultz, Highlands senior. "It just didn't work out in our favor. But I think we have done everything we can to make it this far. So I'm really proud of our team and how we've done."
It came down to rebounding and second-chance points for the most part. Ryle wound up outrebounding Highlands, 30-24 including 8-5 on the offensive glass. The Lady Raiders wound up outscoring the Ladybirds, 11-2 on second-chance points.
"What we (coaching staff) told the girls is we didn't expect to lose," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "It's never an easy night when we lose the last game of the year."
Some of that came with Highlands senior 6-foot-1-inch post McKenzie Leigh out in the third quarter with three fouls. Zoie Barth gave Highlands a 34-26 lead with 4:31 left in the third quarter. But Ryle finished it with an 11-0 run to go up 37-34 entering the fourth quarter.
Maddie Scherr led the Lady Raiders with a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds. Two teammates in Mallory Schwartz and Carly Lange also finished in double figures with 14 and 12 respectively.
"They gave it everything they had," said Katie Haitz, Ryle Head Coach. "We work on high-stress (situations) all the time. I'm really proud of them the way they handled that. All that hard work finally paid off."
Highlands also saw three players reach double figures. Leigh led the way with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. Barth and senior Brianna Adler followed with 13 and 11 respectively.
The Ladybirds built that lead by attacking the basket, scoring or drawing fouls. Highlands hit 15-of-44 shots for 34 percent including 4-of-12 three-point tries for 33 percent.
Ryle shot a little better from the field making 15-of-44 shots for 40.4 percent including 3-of-9 three-point tries for 33 percent. The Lady Raiders made enough free throws to hold on for the win making 17-of-25 for 68 percent.
Highland had Ryle right where it wanted the Lady Raiders at halftime leading 23-22. With just less than 10 seconds left in the half after Ryle did not convert despite a couple offensive rebounds, Haley Coffey took the ball down the court quickly, drove the right side and scored with about a second left to give Highlands the lead.
"We expected (the Highlands Four-Corner spread offense) so we were ready for that," Haitz said. "We capitalized on being able to get them out of that. That was the turning point for us. They couldn't stand there and hold the ball."
Ryle led most of the first half. Schwartz hit a three-pointer before Leigh scored with six minutes left in the quarter. Leigh scored all seven Highlands points in the first quarter as the Ladybirds trailed 12-7 entering the second quarter.
The Lady Raiders did increase the lead to seven twice in the second quarter including 19-12 with 5:43 left in the half following a Scherr offensive rebound. But Barth hit two free throws and Adler scored on a tipped pass to trim the margin to 19-18 with 4:13 left in the half.
Schwartz scored after a turnover and hit a free throw to put Ryle up 22-18 with 2:03 left in the half. But Lauren Epperson made a three-pointer from the right corner with 45 second left to trim the lead to 22-21 setting up Coffey's heroics in the final seconds of the half.
Highlands opened the first half with a 5-0 run. The Ladybirds led by eight twice in the quarter before Ryle went on its run.
The Ladybirds tied the game at 39 when Barth made a three-pointer with 4:55 left in the game. They grabbed the lead twice in the final 4:12. But Ryle took the lead for good when Schwartz scored on fast-break lay-up with 2:49 left in the game.
Epperson scored with 55.8 seconds left in the game on a fast-break lay-up. But Ryle made 7-of-10 free throws down the stretch to hold on for the win.
Highlands had a chance to tie the game with 8.5 seconds left in the game down 52-50. Senior Izzy Schultz drove and drew the foul. Unfortunately, Schultz made the second free throw leaving the deficit at 52-51.
Schwartz made both free throws at the other end to make the final score. Coffey then dribbled upcourt quickly but could get off a clean shot. Ryle blocked it out of bounds to end the game.
"(Schwartz) had the guts to take it to the rim and got fouled," Richey said. "It shouldn't have come down to those two free throws. We could have done other things. Each of the girls could think of a play they could have done better."
Highlands graduates four seniors in Adler, Schultz, Leigh and Coffey. They helped the Ladybirds to three 36th District titles in their four years of high school and four straight region semifinal appearances. Highlands beat Ryle before losing to eventual state runner-up Notre Dame in the title game in 2013.
The Ladybirds return two starters in Barth and Epperson. Highlands will build around them in addition to some underclassmen that could include members of the freshman 9th Region Tournament champions.