But it loomed large as the game progressed because it allowed the Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team (19-6 overall) to control the pace on the way to a 45-36 victory over the Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds (12-10) in the 36th District championship game at Dayton. Highlands has won seven straight district tournament crowns and eight of the last nine.
"We knew we needed to come out ready to play," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "We knew there was going to be a game of runs. But when they had a run, we just had to keep our composure and try to match it. I thought we did an extremely good job of that."
Senior forward Rory O'Hara scored the game's first six points culminating with a three-pointer from the right corner with 4:05 left in the first quarter to give Highlands a lead it would not relinquish. The all-tournament selection added a lay-up with 56.5 seconds left in the quarter to put Highlands up 10-5 entering the second quarter.
NewCath cut the margin to two late in the third quarter. But the tournament's most valuable player in senior forward Kelsey Listerman hit a triple from the right wing with 20 seconds left in the quarter to put the Bluebirds up 29-24 entering the fourth quarter.
"We definitely responded," Listerman said. "We let them get a run at the end of the third quarter. But we put a pedal to the metal and didn't stop from there. You have to keep your eye on the next play and not look back because if you're dwelling on a play that happened previously, you're probably going to mess up again."
Listerman finished with 21 points making 9-of-10 free throws and collecting 11 rebounds for a double-double to go with three assists. She made all eight in the game's final three minutes to propel the Bluebirds to the win.
Six different Bluebirds scored. But the other two Highlands all-tournament selections among others played their parts in the victory in senior guard Emma Mallery and sophomore guard Alyssa Harris.
Mallery scored seven points making three fast-break lay-ups when NewCath applied full-court pressure. She made a crucial free throw drawing a foul and scoring one one of those lay-ups.
Harris handled her usual duties of bringing the ball up the court well dishing out two assists. But she also had six rebounds including four on the offensive glass against taller opponents.
"I think it really makes a difference in every game, especially this year not knowing if we'd get another game to play," Harris said. "No matter who you're up against, it's important to put all your effort out there and you'll come out victorious."
Highlands made 13-of-36 shots for 36 percent including 5-of-19 from three-point range for 26 percent and 12-of-14 free throws for 86 percent. The Bluebirds also had 10 assists, 18 fouls, eight steals, 15 turnovers and 35 rebounds with nine coming on the offensive glass. Highlands junior guard Meg Gessner had two assists and a team-high three steals.
"We knew one of the keys was rebounding," Richey said. "They're a strong and physical team. They shoot it and go after the rebound so we knew we had to match their intensity on rebounding and I thought for the most part, we did."
NewCath tried to pound the ball inside for the most part. Junior guard Rylee Turner led the way with 16 points for the Thoroughbreds.
"We knew we had to switch things up on them," Richey said. "We knew we had to keep them on their toes offensively and I thought defensively for the most part, we did a good job. We had some lapses there in the second quarter. We let Turner drive the lane. That was one of the things we knew we couldn't let happen."
NewCath made 12-of-36 shots for 33 percent including 4-of-20 three-point tries for 20 percent and 8-of-19 free throws for 42 percent. The Thoroughbreds also had 15 rebounds, 18 fouls, 10 turnovers, one blocked shot and two steals.
Highlands plays host to a region quarterfinal game. The 9th Region semifinals and championship game take place at Covington Holmes.
Highlands has won a total of 10 district tournament championships since Richey became the head coach in 2002. The Bluebirds also won consecutive district tournament crowns in 2007 and 2008 before NewCath won the next four between 2009 and 2012. The last NewCath district tournament title came in 2014 and the last time neither won it was 2006 when Newport won it.
The Bluebirds will be making an 11th straight appearance in the region tournament, which is currently the longest streak of the eight teams in the field. Dixie Heights is second with 10 straight appearances.