|Missed Lay-Ups, Defensive Lapses Doom Bluebirds|
|Highlands senior Hanna Buecker (20) boxes out Dixie Heights senior Kaylee McGinn (40) while sophomore Emma Mallery (23) gets in position in the 9th Region semifinals Saturday.|
Since a region runner-up finish in 2002, Highlands had gone 1-6 in the region semifinals. The only win came in 2013 by a 60-44 win over Ryle. That team lost 63-44 to eventual state runner-up Notre Dame in the region championship game.
When the region brackets came out a week ago, many assumed a Highlands-Conner semifinal match-up. But Dixie Heights took down the Associated Press' top-ranked Lady Cougars (29-3), 58-44 on Wednesday after Highlands cruised past Covington Holy Cross, 72-46.
Highlands (29-5), ranked sixth in the state, had its chances to break through the wall. But the upstart Lady Colonels (22-10) did enough to hold off the Bluebirds, 42-39 Saturday.
"We didn't take advantage of some of our lay-ups and we also had some miscues on defense. We helped off people that we talked about not helping," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "We knew we had to battle on the rebounds. At the end, I felt we gave up some crucial rebounds. It sucks to lose. We're all hurting right now. But it's 32 minutes. There's a lot of could have, should have, would have. A lot of the girls are taking it hard personally. But you have to give credit to Dixie. They took advantage of our miscues and got a run going."
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Highlands took 12 more shots than Dixie Heights. But the Bluebirds made just 12-of-47 for 26 percent including 6-of-23 for 26 percent and 9-of-12 free throws for 75 percent. Dixie Heights made 16-of-35 shots for 46 percent including 6-of-9 from three-point range for 67 percent and 4-of-7 free throws for 57 percent. Dixie Heights also won the rebounding battle, 35-24.
"I'm happy with (the win)," said Joel Stecynski, Dixie Heights Head Coach. "I feel like we're in a pretty good spot to match up with all the teams in the 9th Region. We were able to slow it down a little bit and make some free throws like we normally do."
Highlands had won 13 straight against Dixie Heights including a 52-51 win in Fort Thomas on Feb. 1. The last time the Lady Colonels had beaten the Bluebirds came by a 61-50 score in Fort Thomas on Jan. 2, 2007.
The Bluebirds only saw junior Piper Macke hit double digits with 14 points. In the final game of her storied career, senior Zoie Barth scored nine points. Barth also had seven steals.
Barth, who has been in the Highlands rotation since the seventh grade, finished second in school history with 2,403 career points. Richey is first with 4,948.
Senior guard Grace Perry led the Lady Colonels with 13 points. Freshman forward Madelyn Lawson followed with 10. Lawson had a double-double with 13 rebounds.
Highlands did apply some full-court pressure that has hurt Dixie Heights in the past. But the ball-handling led by sophomore guard Sydney Lockard has improved leading to more success for the Lady Colonels. The Bluebirds had 12 steals off 15 Lady Colonel turnovers while yielding four steals off seven turnovers. Lockard had four assists and three steals.
There were nine lead changes and one tie in the first quarter. But Barth scored twice in the final minute, 15 seconds to give Highlands a 17-13 lead.
The second quarter saw a defensive struggle. Dixie Heights senior forward Kaylee McGinn made a jumper in the center to trim the advantage to 17-15 with 5:43 left in the half.
Highlands looked to take control in the third quarter. Highlands used a 5-0 run to expand a 23-17 lead to 28-17. Junior Maggie Hinegardner made a three-pointer and Macke made two free throws to put Highlands up 28-17 with 6:24 left in the third.
But Dixie Heights caught fire making four straight three-pointers to go up 29-28. Perry made two and sophomore guard Laci Reinhart made the other two.
Macke gave the Bluebirds the lead at 30-29 with a lay-up. But Dixie Heights scored seven straight to go up 36-30 entering the fourth quarter. Lockard made a triple and Reinhart laid one in in the middle of the paint.
Highlands cut the margin to 38-36 when Macke made two free throws following a steal. The Bluebirds stole the ball again but did make their free throws. Dixie Heights increased the advantage to 42-36 on a senior forward Kaylee McGinn offensive rebound and two Lawson free throws.
Macke made a triple from the fight corner to trim the lead to 42-39. On the inbound play, Barth stole the ball and Highlands called timeout with 13.8 seconds left in the game.
Highlands shot a three from the right corner. But it came up short and Dixie Heights dribbled out the clock.
Highlands graduates five seniors in Hayes, Barth, Chloe Jansen, Naya Figg and Hanna Buecker. But the Bluebirds won district championships in their four years of high school.
"Only one team wins their last game," Richey said. "We can't let one game define the season that we had. These girls are unbelievable on and off the court. They're a family out there. That's what we're going to remember - the memories and things."
Highlands returns three starters in Macke, junior Maggie Hinegardner and sophomore Rory O'Hara. A number of players such as sophomore Emma Riccobene will be counted on to step forward.