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Thursday, March 25, 2021

Highlands Pulls Away for Region Quarterfinal Win

Bluebirds Put Four in Double-Digits in Victory

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. The Highlands Bluebirds players and coaches gather during a timeout in the 9th Region Quarterfinals on Thursday. Highlands beat Covington Holy Cross, 59-43 to advance to the region semifinals.

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The final score may make people assume the hosts dominated this 9th Region quarterfinal contest.

But the 36th District champion Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team (20-6 overall) actually trailed at one point in the fourth quarter. But the Bluebirds outscored the 35th District runner-up Covington Holy Cross Indians (16-9), 22-5 in the final four minutes, 50 seconds of the game on the way to a 59-43 victory Thursday at Russell Bridges Gym.

Highlands takes on 34th District champion Dixie Heights (25-2) in the 9th Region semifinals at Covington Holmes on Saturday. Game time is 6 p.m.

This marked the final home game for the five seniors in forwards Emma Riccobene, Kelsey Listerman, Rory O'Hara and guards Emma Mallery and Kate Vaught. Four finished in double figures giving them something to remember for the rest of their lives.

"It was great, especially for the seniors, who have worked extremely hard," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "That's always nice, especially for a regional win. I think the girls will learn from this game and be ready to go Saturday night."

Mallery led the way making the game-winning triple from the left corner with 4:50 left in the game and hitting four free throws along with a run-out lay-up down the stretch on her way to 16 points. She made all four shots in the game including two three-pointers and 6-of-7 free throws.

"It's about getting to the open spot," Mallery said. "We had to make (shots) and had to keep going no matter how much they were up on the scoreboard. We kept pushing until the last second. (The coaches) have been telling me to shoot all year. So I shot it and made it. I was really happy with it."

Riccobene and Listerman scored 13 each with O'Hara scoring 10 battling foul trouble. Listerman also had nine rebounds and four assists. Listerman averaged 15 points coming into the game and O'Hara averaged 11.4.

This marked the first time all season four players reached double digits in a game for Highlands. The Bluebirds put three in double digits in six games this season including the 36th District semifinal win over Newport.

Highlands made 17-of-36 shots for 47 percent including 2-of-13 three-point tries for 15 percent and 23-of-29 free throws for 79 percent. The Bluebirds also had 26 rebounds, 12 personal fouls, seven turnovers, seven assists, one blocked shot and four steals.

Holy Cross employed a 2-3 match-up zone defensively with freshman versatile standout Julia Hunt commanding the center of it. Hunt blocked five shots. Highlands scored just two baskets against it in the first quarter with the second coming when sophomore guard Alyssa Harris put back an offensive rebound with two seconds left.

But Highlands did a good job driving and drawing fouls against that defense sometimes starting the attack at the free-throw line. The Indians had 22 fouls including a technical foul in the second half. Hunt picked up two fouls in the first quarter and wound up fouling out 39 seconds into the fourth quarter.

"To only have Hunt play half the game (15 seconds below 16 minutes) was huge for us," Richey said. "When Hunt went out of the game, we knew we had to attack and they did a great job doing that. That's why we went to the free-throw line so many times. (Good free-throw shooting) is what wins games."

The Indians played without their top scorer in senior guard Grace Bezold, who averaged 14.8 points per game. Hunt finished with just five points after coming into the game averaging 13.5 points per game.

But Holy Cross made 15-of-38 shots including 10-of-27 from three-point range for 37 percent and just 3-of-7 free throws for 43 percent. The Indians also had 13 rebounds, five turnovers, six assists and one steal. Sophomore guard/forward Sarah Bottom led the way making five three-pointers on her way to 15 points. 

The Indians built a 10-2 lead to start the game Bottom and senior forward Kara Krumpelman hit three-pointers and Krumpelman hit a second one with 2:40 left in the quarter to put Holy Cross up 13-6. But Highlands hit all six free throws in the quarter to trail just 16-10 entering the second quarter.

"We knew we had to defend Julia Hunt. She's a dominant player inside," Richey said. "We had to limit her touches inside and we had to make the guards do some uncomfortable things. Unfortunately, we gave them some open shots and they knocked them down. You have to give credit to Holy Cross' guards. Thankfully there in the second half, they got tired because I was able to go a little bit deeper than them. Their shots didn't go in and we rebounded the ball extremely well."

Highlands fought back to tie the game in the second quarter. Mallery assisted Listerman on a lay-up with two minutes left to tie the game at 24. Mallery then made a three-pointer from the left wing to tie the game at 27 at halftime.

Holy Cross made four three-pointers in the first half. But the Bluebirds did a better job as the game progressed sliding in on driver, double teaming Hunt then sliding out to defend the outside shooters. Vaught and junior guard Meg Gessner among others played key roles there. Junior center CC Shick also helped let the Bluebirds focus on other players in the middle at times.

"Once they made one or two outside, we made sure we were guarding them the whole time," Gessner said. "We made sure we had a hand up. We worked together always talking on defense."

Both teams struggled offensively to start the third quarter. But Holy Cross picked up five fouls in the first three minutes of the quarter after committing nine in the first half. Hunt picked up her fourth with 5:21 left in the quarter.

Riccobene scored the first field goal of the second half with 4:50 left in the third to put Highlands up 30-27. Two straight threes gave Holy Cross a 33-30 lead.

The Bluebirds tied it at 34 with 2:05 left when Mallery put back an offensive rebound. But sophomore guard Elizabeth McCoy made a three with 55 seconds left to give Holy Cross a 37-34 advantage going into the fourth quarter. 

Highlands tied the game at 37 with 6:35 left in the game when O'Hara hit a jumper. Freshman forward/guard Miyah Wimzie gave the Indians their final lead with 5:40 left making a free throw.

The Bluebirds have drawn Holy Cross three times in the last six years in the region quarterfinals winning all three meetings. They lost 36-33 against Dixie Heights in Fort Thomas on Jan. 29.

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