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Saturday, March 27, 2021

"A Valiant Effort": Highlands Drops Region Semifinal Game

Bluebirds Unable to Stop Colonel Winning Streak

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands senior guard Emma Mallery brings the ball up the court in the first half of the 9th Region semifinal game against Dixie Heights on Saturday.

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The Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team put itself in position to advance to that elusive 9th Region championship game Saturday.

Meet Ethan and the team.

But the Bluebirds ran into a big challenge in the region semifinals at Covington Holmes in the red-hot Dixie Heights Colonels (26-2 overall). Dixie Heights brought the region's longest 20-game winning streak into the game dating back to a 40-35 loss at Cooper on Jan. 22.

The Bluebirds (20-7) knew they had to play loose with nothing to lose. They'd lost just 36-33 to Dixie Heights during the regular season on Jan. 29 in Fort Thomas.

Highlands gave a valiant effort. But the Bluebirds could not pull off the big win falling 54-42.

The Bluebirds graduate five seniors this spring from the team in forwards Kelsey Listerman, Rory O'Hara, Emma Riccobene and guards Emma Mallery and Kate Vaught. Riccobene and Listerman led Highlands with 15 and 13 points respectively. In the odd season, Highlands Head Coach Jaime Walz-Richey said she's glad the staff had them to lead the way.

"They came in. We played our last game last March (of 2020) and we didn't get to do anything together as a team until October," Richey said. "We did individual things (among other things). I was really proud of this group. These five seniors have meant a lot to this program. Our ultimate goal is to win region. We fell short. But I can never question their effort. They left it out on the court every time they stepped out."

Highlands made 17-of-43 shots for just under 40 percent including 4-of-17 three-point tries for just under 24 percent and 4-of-8 free throws for 50 percent. The Bluebirds also had 26 rebounds, 16 fouls, seven assists, 15 turnovers, one blocked shot and nine steals. Mallery had five steals.

The Bluebirds held Dixie's leading scorer in junior power foward Madelyn Lawson to six points. She entered the tournament averaging just more than 15 points per game.

But the double and triple teams down low opened things up on the outside. Dixie made 21-of-44 shots for 48 percent including 8-of-20 three-point tries for 40 percent and 4-of-11 free throws for 36 percent. The Colonels also had 31 rebounds, 13 fouls, 15 assists, 13 turnovers, three blocked shots and 12 steals.

Sophomore guard Ella Steczynski hurt the Bluebirds the most out there making four triples on her way to 12 points. Senior point guard Sydney Lockard and senior Laci Reinhart scored near their averages with 13 and 10 respectively.

Dixie Heights scored the game's first five points. But Highlands finished the first quarter on a 7-0 run to go up 7-5. Listerman made a triple from the right wing then put in an offensive rebound to tie the game at 5-5 with 2:61 left in the quarter. Listerman then found Riccobene for a jumper from the right post.

After the Colonels tied the game at nine just 49 seconds into the second quarter, Listerman found Riccobene for a three from the right win to give Highlands a 12-9 advantage. But Dixie Heights responded with seven in a row to go up 16-12.

The Bluebirds trimmed the margin to two twice including an 18-16 deficit with 3:40 left in the half when Riccobene hit a jumper. But Dixie ran off seven in a row to go up 25-16. Lockard led the charge with a triple and two free throws.

Highlands scored four points in the final minute, 20 seconds of the half to pull within 25-20. Sophomore point guard Alyssa Harris put in an offensive rebound, drew the foul and made the ensuing free throw with 32.3 seconds left in the half.

The Bluebirds used a 10-2 run in the third quarter to go up 30-29 after Riccobene made a lay-up with 3:39 left in the third quarter. Following five straight Dixie points, O'Hara made a triple to pull Highlands within one at 34-33 with 1:40 left in the quarter. Lawson scored with 20.2 seconds left to put Dixie Heights up 36-33 entering the fourth quarter.

The Colonels scored the first five points of the fourth quarter to go up 44-34. Highlands cut the margin to seven twice including 45-38 with 1:21 remaining after a Listerman score. But Dixie Heights put the game away from there starting with a Reinhart three from the left corner.

"What are the chances," Richey said. "That's a shot we wanted them to take. Unfortunately, they made it. Their threes were going in and ours weren't going in (Saturday). Defensively, we did what we needed to do for the most part besides letting (Lockard) getting in the lane some. Rebounding kind of hurt us there a couple times giving them multiple possessions where they scored. But I can't complain about these girls. They came out, busted their tails and did the best they could."

This game featured a battle of the two teams holding the longest current streaks of consecutive appearances in the region tournament. Highlands has gone every year since 2010 and Dixie Heights has gone every year since 2011.

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