|Bluebirds Pull Away from Lady Indians|
|Highlands sophomore Emma Mallery (23) looks to pass against the Holy Cross pressure Wednesday.|
But neither lasted for more than 21 seconds. Highlands senior guard Zoie Barth gave the state's sixth-ranked Bluebirds (29-4) the lead for good at 9-6 with three-pointer from the right wing with 4:31 left in the quarter. The Bluebirds gradually pulled away from there for a 72-46 victory in the 9th Region quarterfinals Wednesday to move on to the semifinals Saturday at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University.
Highlands won its first region quarterfinal game since 2016. The Bluebirds take on Dixie Heights (21-10) on Saturday at Noon back at BB&T Arena where the 9th Region Tournament has been held since 2009. Highlands beat Dixie Heights, 52-51 in Fort Thomas on Feb. 1.
"It's just like the (36th) District tournament," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "We know we have to come out, be prepared, know what we're doing offensively and defensively. You have to know when your number is going to be called."
The Bluebirds turned a good number of steals into points using full-court pressure. They recorded 14 off 24 Holy Cross turnovers while yielding eight steals on 13 turnovers. Barth led Highlands with four thefts in addition to her team-high 18 points and the game's lone blocked shot. Junior Piper Macke recorded three steals with senior Hanna Buecker, junior Rylee Thomas and sophomore Emma Mallery had two each.
"It's nerve-racking playing on such a big court. It's a big tournament, big game," Macke said. "It's just a sight of relief to have people to rely on, people to just have see (the ball) go in the first couple times. The team naturally flows. We work together (well) after that. I'm pretty sure the whole team is stoked (about advancing)."
Highlands led 17-8 after one quarter after Barth recorded a steal and score. The Bluebirds extended the lead to 31-15 at halftime and 51-34 entering the fourth quarter. They led by as many as 26 points in the third quarter.
All 15 players saw action for the Bluebirds. Macke scored 13 points making two three-pointers in the game's first two minutes. Senior Chloe Jansen added scored 10 and had four assists.
Others needed to step forward with Barth and sophomore starter Rory O'Hara ultimately fouling out. Sophomore Emma Riccobene scored nine points off the bench.
"Every time we're preached to that we need all 15 players here to come out and support each other on the bench and on the court," Riccobene said. "I think (Wednesday) was a really, really good example of how the bench players came out, did exactly what we were told to, carried on how the starters were playing and kept the energy up the same."
Highlands earned 14 more shots than Holy Cross. The Bluebirds made 24-of-49 shots for 49 percent including 9-of-24 three-point shots for 38 percent and 15-of-21 free throws for 71 percent.
Holy Cross made just 15-of-35 shots for 43 percent including 2-of-10 three-point tries for 20 percent and 14-of-21 free throws for 67 percent. The Lady Indians had some success pounding the ball inside to sophomore post Sidney Thomas, who scored 11. Sophomore guard Grace Bezold came off the bench to score 20.
Highlands held Holy Cross senior guard Olivia Crigler to just three points. She scored 15 in the 83-62 Highlands win in Fort Thomas on Dec. 10.
"We had to know where Crigler was and there's no way that we allow her to have those open shots," Richey said. "We knew once a shooter sees their first shot in, she can make it in numbers. We really emphasized that in practice and I thought we did a good job executing our game plan."
Highlands won the rebounding battle, 29-20 with Macke and Jansen grabbing five each. Both teams recorded 17 fouls.
Since Richey became head coach in 2002, Highlands has made the region tournament every year except 2010. The Bluebirds moved to 8-8 in region quarterfinal games during that time. They are 1-6 in region semifinal contests during that same time frame.
Highlands beat Ryle, 60-44 in the region semifinals in 2013 before losing 63-44 to eventual state runner-up Notre Dame in the region championship. The Bluebirds last won the region crown in 2001.