Friday, February 23, 2018

Fourth Straight District Crown for Bluebirds

Defense Paves Way for Highlands Win

Senior guard Brooke Dill stepped up the ladder to cut the net celebrating yet another 36th District championship.

But this trip up the ladder carried something bigger than the previous ones for Dill because it meant something that had not happened in 17 years just took place for Dill and the Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team (24-7 overall). The 47-31 victory over the Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds (11-17) gave the Bluebirds their fourth straight district championship and fifth in the last six years Thursday in Fort Thomas.

Dill became the first Highlands player to win four district championship in four years of high school since the Bluebirds won their last 9th Region championship in 2001. That team comprised of two seniors in Stephanie Ripberger and Katie Winkler-Carelock along with current Highlands assistant Tara Boothe-Smith, a junior on that team, beat Perry County Central, 52-48 to open the state tournament before losing 55-34 to Henderson County in the state quarterfinals.

"It's surreal honestly being able to have the opportunity to play under Coach Richey with the teammates that I have around me," Dill said. "It's just been an incredible experience. They've really created a family around me and I couldn't have asked for better teammates or a better coach. With family comes trust and we have a lot of trust in each other. When things don't go our way, we still have trust in each other to know we can pick each other up. We'll get it fixed and keep on going."

Highlands has won seven district championships since Jaime Walz-Richey became head coach in 2002. The Bluebirds also extended their winning streak against district opponents to 24 in a row including seven straight against the Thoroughbreds.

But the championship did not come easy. NewCath threw a Box-and-One defense on junior Zoie Barth and the Bluebirds struggled against it some. Both teams recorded 15 turnovers. The Bluebirds recorded 10 steals and the Thoroughbreds had eight.

"We were making some ill-advised passes and forcing thing," Richey said. "Once we settled down, we put our shooters out on the court and they were able to knock down some shots."

Barth still finished with 21 points making 6-of-11 shots including 3-of-5 from three-point range to go with six rebounds and three steals. Highlands made 16-of-41 shots for 39 percent including 5-of-19 from three-point range for 26 percent and 10-of-14 free throws for 71 percent.

But no one else scored in double figures for either team. Sophomore Piper Macke came off the bench and hit two critical three-pointers on her way to eight points for Highlands.

Senior guard Alexis Pangallo and junior guard Jalyn Vogt led NewCath with nine points. The Thoroughbreds made just 10-of-43 shots for 23 percent including 4-of-17 three-point tries for 24 percent and 7-of-10 free throws for 70 percent.

Highlands won the rebounding battle, 34-25 and had nine assists to three for NewCath. Junior guard Chloe Jansen led the Bluebirds with seven rebounds and four assists.

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The game looked as though it could become lopsided in the first quarter. Barth ignited a 9-0 Highlands run to give the Bluebirds a 14-1 advantage. But Vogt had a three-point play and Pangallo hit a jumper to close the gap to 14-6 after one.

Highlands extended the lead back to double figures. Jansen recorded a steal and found Macke for the score to make it 20-7 Bluebirds before NewCath trimmed it down to 20-12 when Vogt made a three-pointer.

Barth made another three and Hanna Buecker had an offensive putback to make the score 25-12 with 2:33 left in the half. Pangallo made a three-pointer to cut the margin to 25-15 at halftime.

Highlands could not do anything offensively to start the third quarter. NewCath chipped away at the lead and had it down to 26-20 with 4:23 left in the quarter when Kara Zimmerman hit a jumper.

But Macke made a three-pointer from the right wing to increase the lead back to nine at 29-20 with 3:28 left in the quarter. Highlands finished the quarter on an 8-0 run on a Barth three-point play, another Macke three from the left corner and a Rory O'Hara score.

"I'm glad we have such a versatile team," Macke said. "We have a lot of people who can hit shots. The last few varsity games, I haven't been in a rhythm so lucky (Thursday), I hit a few shots and got my confidence up a little bit."

NewCath trimmed the margin to 11 with 1:44 left in the game. But Highlands made 5-of-7 free throws down the stretch to pull away. The Bluebirds used a four-corner spread offense in the fourth quarter and at the end of the second quarter to create space and run off some clock.

"What we talked about at halftime was rebounds," Richey said. "We gave up a lot of second-chance points. We really focused at halftime talking about go snatch the ball out of the air. Don't wait for it and I thought we did a much better job rebounding the ball in the second half."

Barth received the Tournament Most Valuable Player award. Dill and Macke received all-tournament honors.

The draw for the 9th Region Tournament takes place Saturday. Highlands could face Conner, Covington Holy Cross or the loser of the 34th District championship game Friday at Ludlow between Dixie Heights and Lloyd Memorial in the region quarterfinals at Northern Kentucky University's BB&T Arena.

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, The Highlands girls basketball team hoists the 36th District championship trophy Thursday. The Bluebirds beat Newport Central Catholic, 47-31 for their fourth straight district title Thursday at home.

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