By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
When teams come in heavily favored, they tend to look at opponents and think, “Oh. They’re no good. We can take the night off.”
The Highlands Bluebirds girls coaching staff made sure the hosts (24-7) washed away any traces of that mentality quickly in the 36th District Championship game here Friday. Head Coach Jaime Walz-Richey and staff benched the starters with 5:20 left in the first quarter and just a 2-0 lead on two Jesse “Dirt” Daley free throws.
The Bluebirds responded well. The reserved used a 7-0 run to put Highlands up 15-7 after the first quarter and cruised to a 66-27 win over the Newport Lady Wildcats (18-12) for its first district championship since consecutive titles in 2007 and 2008. The Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds won the previous four titles.
“We told them we have to be prepared from here on out,” Richey said. “We can’t have mental lapses like we did. We didn’t have energy to begin the game. That’s why I benched them and brought my subs in.”
Vanessa Fisse scored seven of her 12 points in the first quarter for Highlands. The Bluebirds led just 8-7. But Fisse started the 7-0 run with a three-pointer and jumper on the left side. McKenzie Leigh finished it with a lay-up.
“We just had to show (Newport) respect and play against them the way we did against NewCath,” said Emilie Parton, Highlands senior. “That’s how we knew we were going to win. We had to step it up and play good defense or we were going to see the bench like (the starters) were.”
The Bluebirds had too much depth for the Lady Wildcats. They saw 10 different players score to just four for the visitors. Tournament Most Valuable Player Brianna Adler led Highlands making five three-pointers on her way to 15 points and Leah Schaefer followed with 10. Schaefer and Fisse also made the All-Tournament team with NewCath forward Stephanie Lewis.
Schaefer let out a scream after the game. In addition to winning their first district title while in high school, the Bluebirds also ended an eight-game losing streak to the rival Thoroughbreds in the semifinals Tuesday as a result of the blind draw.
“I’m so excited,” Schaefer said. “I’m not sure why we started off slow. The subs picked it up and did really well for us. We have a really deep bench and everyone on this team can play so if someone is having a bad game, someone else can go in and pick up where we left off.”
Highlands made 24-of-49 shots for 49 percent, including eight three-pointers. The Bluebirds also did well from the free-throw line again making 10-of-12 attempts for 83 percent.
Newport made just 10-of-43 shots for 23 percent including three triples and 4-of-6 free throws for 67 percent. Kylie Orr led the Lady Wildcats with 11 points.
The Bluebirds pressured the Lady Wildcats all over the court forcing 23 turnovers on 20 steals while committing 11 on nine Newport steals. Fisse led Highlands with four thefts with Schaefer and Lydia Graves recording three each.
“We knew we could go deep in our bench this game,” Richey said. “We wanted to use that to our advantage to get all the girls experience in the district tournament. At one time, I had all my freshmen along with Alex (Combs) and Lydia (Graves) out there. Usually when they’re in, Haley (Coffey) and Brianna are out.”
The Bluebirds did a great job balancing between going for steals and committing fouls. They committed just eight to nine for Newport. Only one Highlands player finished with more than one foul.
“You have to pretty much be in help side or denying the ball,” Adler said. “When you’re in help defense, you have to run and get it and try not to slap (opponents). We got in foul trouble once before and it wasn’t very pretty. So we tried to get in help side and get the pass.”
The Bluebirds also did a better job distributing the ball then the Lady Wildcats and controlling the paint. Highlands had 15 assists to seven for Newport. Adler led Highlands with four assists.
The Bluebirds also turned away six Newport shots to three blocks for the Lady Wildcats. Leigh led Highlands with three blocks.
Highlands put the game away with a 12-0 run to start the second quarter. Adler made two three-pointers and Schaefer scored three buckets during that run that gave the Bluebirds a 27-7 advantage with 4:35 left in the half.
Highlands led 35-14 before another 7-0 run expanded the lead to 42-14 at halftime. Adler made another three-pointer with Graves recording a steal and coast-to coast score and Coffey making two free throws.
The Bluebirds used another 9-0 run to go up 51-16 with 5:40 remaining in the third quarter and enforce the running clock. Schafer scored two buckets to lead the run.
Highlands finished that quarter with another 7-0 run to go up 63-20 entering the fourth quarter. Combs scored her four points during that Bluebird run.
The biggest lead of the game for Highlands came at 43 points with 7:36 left in the game. Graves gave the Bluebirds that lead with a free throw.
Highlands will be going for its first regional title since 2001 starting early next week at the Bank of Kentucky Center at Northern Kentucky University. The Bluebirds won three consecutive regional titles when Richey played in 1994, 1995 and 1996. Highlands finished state runner-up during Richey’s sophomore season in 1994.