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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Highlands Holds off Persistent NewCath for Another District Crown

Bluebirds Win Sixth Straight District Crown

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands senior Piper Macke (1) and Maggie Hinegardner (13) get in defensive position in the 36th District championship at Newport on Thursday. Macke earned Most Valuable Player honors for the tournament.
After a couple years of Blue and White dominating the series, the old days of these two 36th District rivals battling to the very end returned this year.

But the Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team (21-10 overall) won another district championship with a 44-41 win over the Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds (20-12) on Thursday at Newport when the dust settled. This marks the sixth in a row for the Bluebirds and seventh in the past eight seasons.

Highlands avenged a 50-47 loss at NewCath on Jan. 28 blowing a huge lead in the process. The loss snapped a 32-game winning streak against district opponents for the Bluebirds.

Both teams have overcome tough times in the first half of the season to put together nice seasons. NewCath lost its first four games starting the season 1-5 and Highlands lost 5-of-6 in holiday tournaments after starting the season 3-1.

Highlands mainly did it behind solid defense and rebounding. The Bluebirds won the rebounding battle, 30-22 and had nine steals off 14 NewCath turnovers while giving up four steals on eight turnovers.

"We talked about it halftime. They had seven second-chance points and they finished with eight," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "We told them we have to limit them to one shot. We did a great job of that in the second half. We made some minor mistakes leaving some shooters open, but overall, we executed our game plan like we wanted to."

The fourth and fifth leading scorers paved the way offensively for Highlands. Junior forward Rory O'Hara nearly recorded a double-double with 14 points and seven rebounds before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. Teammates hit O'Hara cutting to the rim for scores.

"The passing was really good," O'Hara said. "You have a few seconds to make your move and get it up. It also helped a lot that we were open when we were cutting."

Junior forward Emma Riccobene also managed to put up 10 points to go with five rebounds, one steals and an assist. The two leading scorers in senior guard Piper Macke and junior forward Kelsey Listerman may not have had their greatest games offensively. But they still contributed.

Macke had six points to go with five rebounds and four steals and Listerman four points to go with seven rebounds, four assists, a blocked shot and steal. Senior guard Maggie Hinegardner added six points and four assists.

"I'm really happy that everyone else stepped up and helped us win it," Macke said. "It was a fun game to play. I think it was a fun game to watch and it's always fun cutting down the nets. I'm very happy I can consider myself one of the many to continue the tradition. I think it just goes to show how tight of a team Highlands is, how our coaches are always pushing us and how we're always working together and making things happen."

Highlands made 13-of-45 shots for 29 percent including just 3-of-19 from three-point range for 16 percent and 15-of-22 free throws for 68 percent. The Bluebirds also had 15 fouls, eight turnovers, 10 assists, a blocked shot and eight steals.

"We'll watch this film (Friday) and look at what we're doing," Richey said. "We have to fine-tune those up before next week when we play."

NewCath made 12-of-32 shots for 38 percent including 4-of-11 three-point tries for 37 percent and 13-of-19 free throws for 68 percent. NewCath also had 18 fouls, 11 turnovers, four assists, one blocked shot and two steals.

The Thoroughbreds saw their three leading scorers score all but three of the team's points. Senior forward Piper Murphy scored 15 to go with four rebounds, two turnovers and a blocked shot. Junior guard Annie Heck had 12 points to go with two assists and sophomore guard Rylee Turner had 11 points to go with six rebounds and a steal.

NewCath liked to pass around the perimeter and often dribbled one way trying to find a cutter to the basket. But Highlands did a good job against those plays jumping to deflect or intercept those passes.

"We knew we had to know where Turner and Heck were at all times," Richey said. "We also told them Murphy is a great rebounder and she got a lot of second-chance points in the first half. But I thought we did a much better job with her in the second half."

Highlands had to face full-court pressure at times. That has bothered the Bluebirds at times this year.

"It was about using our heads to know when they were going to pressure and when they weren't," said Alyssa Harris, Highlands freshman guard. "We really focus on taking care of the ball and not worry about taking it too fast. That was our biggest problem beforehand."

Highlands scored the first four points of the game and led 7-2 with 5:04 left in the quarter following a Macke triple. But NewCath tied the game 9-9 after one after Heck scored.

The second quarter was also tight. The Bluebirds led 23-19 with 1:16 left in the half when Hinegardner made a three-pointer. Highlands led 23-22 at halftime.

The Bluebirds outscored the Thoroughbreds, 10-5 in the third quarter to go up 33-27. Riccobene hit two free throws with 4:26 left in the quarter to put Highlands up 31-26. She also scored with 2:33 left in the quarter to give Highlands that 33-27 lead going into the fourth quarter. Riccobene and O'Hara joined Macke on the all-tournament team.

The Bluebirds tried to put the game away early in the fourth quarter. O'Hara and Listerman scored to put Highlands up 37-27 with 5:55 left in the game.

But NewCath cut the margin to 37-34 with 2:58 left in the game after Heck made a free throw. But O'Hara hit two free throws with 1:06 left in the game to put Highlands up 39-34.

Following a Hinegardner free throw with 12 seconds left, senior Sam Gause hit a three-pointer from the left wing to cut the margin to 43-41. After Riccobene made a free throw to make the final score, NewCath got a shot off that missed to make the final score.

The 9th Region Tournament begins Monday at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University. Highlands will face Conner, Covington Holy Cross or the loser of the 34th District championship between Dixie Heights and Ludlow in the region quarterfinals.

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