|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior Lauren Epperson (right) goes in for the score in Monday's 52-44 9th Region quarterfinal win over Covington Holy Cross. Highlands takes on Ryle in the 9th Region semifinals at Noon on Saturday.|
Highlands (22-10 overall) finished 11-4 during the regular season against 9th Region competition. But the Ladybirds saw they'd potentially need to win rematches against three of the teams they lost to if they were to make a run to their first 9th Region crown since 2001.
The 36th District champion Ladybirds overcame the first challenge with a 52-44 victory over the defending state champion Covington Holy Cross Lady Indians on Monday. That marked the eighth win in the last nine games for Highlands.
It also marked the lone region quarterfinal game decided by single digits. The other three saw blowout wins by at least 29 points.
Next up for Highlands in the region semifinals is the 33rd District champion Ryle Lady Raiders (23-6). Under the guidance of first-year Head Coach and former Boone County player Katie Madden-Haitz, Ryle has won 16 of its last 18 games after starting the season 7-4.
Ryle finished 12-1 in region play during the regular season losing only to 35th District champion Covington Holmes, 41-37 on Dec. 11 in Covington. Ryle has won the rugged 33rd District two years in a row.
Both teams took advantage of the extra day of practice. Highlands practiced at the Cintas Center at Xavier University to prepare for another game on the large BB&T Arena floor.
"I was happy we played that first game Monday night just because it's an emotional game for us," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "We enjoyed (the win) Tuesday before going back at it Tuesday with film work and things like that."
Ryle defeated Highlands, 51-40 in Union on Feb. 1. But that marked a stretch that the Ladybirds lost 7-of-9 against tough competition before turning things around.
"They want to be successful as a team," Haitz said. "It's not about one person. That's what makes us so hard to guard. We're unselfish. They attack, They move the ball around. They see the floor well and because of that, they've been successful. They had that before I came here. I just added to it."
Both teams have won with nice defense and balanced scoring. Highlands has outscored the competition, 1,775-1,356 and Ryle has outscored opponents, 1,604-1,294.
Ryle likes to play pressure man-to-man defense with its size and pound the ball down low offensively. But Richey wants the Ladybirds to focus more on themselves as opposed to the Ladybirds.
"What we're trying to get the girls to understand is every possession counts," Richey said. "When we call a play, we have to know what we're looking for and who we think is going to be open. We have to make sure we get them the ball. We have to eliminate our dribbles and other little things like that. That will pay dividends."
All five starters average at least 5.9 points for Highlands. Freshman point guard Zoie Barth and senior forward Brianna Adler lead the way averaging 12.4 and 11.6 points per game respectively and senior center McKenzie Leigh is close to double digitis at 9.8 a game. The other two starters in senior guard Haley Coffey and junior Lauren Epperson average 8.1 and 5.9 respectively.
"They're a good team," Haitz said of Highlands. "We're going to have to play good help defense knowing where the ball is, which is part of our game as it is. We'll just have to see what happens, but I'm hoping we'll do well closing up those gaps so they're not attacking the basket as well and create some havoc for them."
While Adler, Barth, Leigh and Coffey have led the way most of the year, other players have shown they could have big games. That often comes up huge in tournament time. Senior Izzy Schultz, Epperson, juniors Macy Gabbard, Emma Little and even freshman Chloe Jansen have shown that capability at times this year.
"We've been doing a lot of team bonding and working together," Gabbard said. "(The seniors) brought us all together and we had a talk about (the season). We just decided we needed to change a lot and we did."
The key for Highlands has been adjusting to the opposing defense. The Ladybirds have made 562-of-1,382 shots for about 41 percent including 170-of-536 three-point shots for 32 percent.
Highlands has done well attacking defenses and drawing fouls if they don't score. The Ladybirds have hit 469-of-633 attempts for 74 percent.
On the other side, experience has really helped Ryle with six seniors. Senior forward Carly Lange leads Ryle averaging 11.7 points per game and senior guard Mallory Schwartz averages 11.5 points per game and 6.5 rebounds. A third senior in guard Madison Jones averages 10.5 a game.
Richey said a big key will be rebounding. Ryle likes to grab rebounds and push the ball up the court in transition quickly. The Lady Raiders have 992 rebounds on the season and the Ladybirds have 842. Leigh leads Highlands averaging 5.9 per game.
"We have to be smart," Richey said. "We can't send five people to the offensive glass. We have to make sure someone runs back at all times just to make sure we limit their transition points."
Ryle has made 556-of-1,394 shots on the year for nearly 40 percent including 96-of-320 three-point tries for 30 percent. The Lady Raiders have also made 386-of-563 free throws for 68.6 percent.
Highlands has lost in the region semifinals the last two years. But Coffey and Adler started as freshmen on the 2013 team that beat Ryle in the semifinals before losing to eventual state runner-up Notre Dame in the 9th Region title game.
The winner takes on either Holmes (26-4) or Conner (22-11) in the championship game. It takes place Sunday at 6 p.m.