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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Bluebirds Draw Conner for 9th Region Quarterfinals

Bluebirds Went 0-2 Against Lady Cougars During Regular Season

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands sophomore Piper Macke puts up a shot in the district semifinals against Dayton.
There is no doubt the Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team has been rolling along lately.

Highlands (24-7 overall) has won 13 of its last 14 games entering the 9th Region Tournament at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University. But Saturday morning, the Bluebirds found out they'd need to beat the team that handed them that one loss during that stretch in the region quarterfinals to keep its season alive.

Highlands will battle the Conner Lady Cougars (22-8) in the region quarterfinals Monday at 8:30 p.m. The Bluebirds finished 13-4 in 9th Region action with two coming against Conner. The Lady Cougars beat them in Hebron on Dec. 29 to win the annual LaRosa's Holiday Classic before coming to Fort Thomas and winning 67-60 on Feb. 9.

The Bluebirds have seen junior guard Zoie Barth lead the way in scoring averaging around 20 points per game. But the key to their success has been others stepping forward. Sophomore Piper Macke hit two huge three-pointers in the 47-31 36th District championship game against Newport Central Catholic and junior guard Ashley Hayes scored 20 in the 66-63 win at Simon Kenton on Feb. 12. Junior forward Hanna Buecker, senior guard Brooke Dill, junior guard Chloe Jansen and freshman forward Rory O'Hara among others have also had big games this year. The Bluebirds are averaging about 56 points per game offensively this year.

"It's going to be huge. We have Conner that's a tough team," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "We're going to have to come out and play our best game, be prepared and understand what we want to do offensively and defensively. But it's going to take all 15 and that's been our motto the past month."

Conner is 11-4 against the 9th Region this year with all four losses coming in 33rd District action. District champion Ryle beat Conner three times this season including a 71-44 decision Thursday in the district championship game. Conner had to beat Cooper, 77-60 in the district semifinals to make the region tournament. Conner has outscored opponents by an average of about 59-53 this season.

"We have some kids who play really hard and shoot the ball well so we are balanced," said Aaron Stamm, Conner Head Coach. "This will be a tough game as it always is when we play Highlands."

Junior guard Courtney Hurst has led Conner averaging 13.7 points per game entering the 33rd District championship game. Junior guard Savannah Jordan and junior forward Maddie Burcham were just under 10 points per game. Stamm also said sophomore center Maddie Drummonds has started to come along.

Highlands has played tough defense all season allowing an average of just 44 points per game. The Bluebirds will need another solid effort defensively to win Monday. Hurst scored 22 points in the Conner win at Fort Thomas and 13 in the LaRosa's Holiday Classic title game.

"It's all about communication on the defensive end and I think the girls are finally realizing how much I harp in practice, why I harp in practice about defense is communicating," Richey said. "It takes all five people out there talking together making sure we understand where shooters are and things like that."

Some of the players will play in the region tournament for the first time. But the players don't want to make the game bigger than it is.

"I think the big thing for the new ones that are coming in is to stay calm and play as a team," O'Hara said. "As long as we play as a team, we'll be fine."

Richey is the longest-tenured head coach in the 9th Region in her 16th season. The Bluebirds have been to the region championship once losing to eventual state runner-up Notre Dame, 63-44 in the 2013 region title game. They are in search of their first region crown since 2001.

"We just take it game-by-game," Jansen said. "We know what have to do so we just have to focus on what's next and what's to come afterwards when we beat that team."

Highlands has made the region tournament eight straight years and 15 out of 16 seasons since Richey became head coach. The Bluebirds are 7-7 in region quarterfinals during that time. They lost 77-62 to Cooper in the region quarterfinals last year snapping a run of four straight wins in the region quarterfinals.

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