G. Michael Graham Photo. Highlands freshman Brianna Adler (10) prepares to shoot a free throw in Tuesday's 36th District Semifinal contest against Newport Central Catholic. Adler made 10-of-11 free throws on her way to a team-high 12 points. The Bluebirds made 23-of-25 free throws on their way to a 48-40 win and snap the Thoroughbreds eight-game winning streak in the series.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
In a game that a blind draw unfortunately meant the end of the season for one of the top five girls basketball teams in the 9th Region for the second time in four years, size won out.
The Highlands Bluebirds (23-7) used it to create turnovers and constantly attack the basket to create things offensively. They ended up making an astounding 23-of-25 free-throw attempts for 92 percent on their way to a 48-40 36th District Semifinal win over the Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds on Tuesday.
“Every one of our starters had started in a district tournament before,” said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands head coach. “We thought we had the advantage there. We were more of a veteran team than NC was. That paid off with all the free throws we made.”
Highlands made 13 of those 14 attempts in the fourth quarter after NewCath drew to within two twice. Freshman Brianna Adler made 10-of-11 free throws on her way to a team-high 12 points, including 7-of-8 in the fourth quarter.
Senior Jesse “Dirt” Daley set the tone in the paint for Highlands. She scored 11 points making 3-of-4 free throws. Daley and the other five seniors were freshmen in 2010 when NewCath eliminated Highlands, 55-47 in the 36th Semfinals at Newport High.
“When we were sitting in the locker room after the game my freshman year, we said as a class that we were not going to let our senior year end like that,” Daley said. “That was our goal. We were determined to not let it happen.”
NewCath had won the previous eight meetings dating back to a 54-48 Highlands win on Jan. 9, 2009 in Fort Thomas. The Thoroughbreds (20-10) had won the previous four district championships, including the 9th Region in 2011.
NewCath was not the only one of what many considered the Top 5 teams in the region to lose Tuesday. Boone County beat Conner in overtime and Covington Holmes edged Covington Holy Cross. The only difference is the other three districts received seeds. The teams will be seeded next year as Newport cast the deciding vote.
“It’s ashaim. It’s good for next year, but who knows what’s going to happen the year after that and the year after that,” said George Stoll, NewCath head coach of the blind draw. “It will hopefully be a good thing next year for both of our sake. Plus, we have it on our home floor. It was obviously a big deal (Tuesday) and we hope it’s a big deal for us next year.”
Highlands and NewCath have voted for seeds for years. The volleyball teams received them in the fall and the baseball and softball teams will be seeded in the spring.
“We’re really, really happy,” said Stephanie Lewis, NewCath forward. “It’s just more fair to have seeds. The top two teams should be able to go to region every year.”
Highlands faces the winner of Wednesday’s Bellevue (16-14) and Newport (17-11) game for the district championship Friday at 7 p.m. back home. The Bluebirds did not play Bellevue, but beat Newport, 66-33 in Fort Thomas on Dec. 10. The Bluebirds will be going for the eighth consecutive win and first district championship since winning consecutive crowns in 2007 and 2008.
NewCath will not make the regional tournament for the first time since 2008. Highlands beat NewCath that year, 62-51 when the two drew each other in the opening round of the tournament.
NewCath also shot free throws well, but did not make it to the line near as much as Highlands. The Thoroughbreds hit 8-of-9 attempts.
Junior standout Nikki Kiernan again led the way making all five free throws on her way to a double-double of 13 points and 12 rebounds in addition to blocking three shots despite picking up two fouls in the first half. Alexus Mayes finished with seven points and seven rebounds.
Stephanie Lewis tried to pick up some of the slack. She made two three-pointers on her way to 10 points and Ansley Davenport made the other two NewCath triples.
“We wanted to let them to shoot the three,” Richey said. “We were going to take a chance there. It paid off.”
Highlands outscored NewCath, 15-6 in points off the bench. Vanessa Fisse scored nine points making a three-pointer and all four free throws and Alex Combs scored six.
“We’d really been working on our free throws because those are key in crucial games like this,” Fisse said. “We’ve been consistent the past few games. It was awesome.”
The Bluebirds also won the rebounding battle 34-28. Ava Abner led Highlands with 11 rebounds and Leah Schaefer followed with nine to go with six points.
“We played a 2-3 zone against them the first time,” Richey said. “But we didn’t rebound well. We rebounded pretty well (Tuesday).”
Highlands recorded 14 steals on 15 NewCath turnovers compared to nine steals on 13 turnovers for the Thoroughbreds. All eight players recorded steals for the Bluebirds led by three from Abner and Adler.
NewCath led 8-6 after the first quarter before Highlands took the lead for good at the end of the second. Daley hit a jumper with 30 seconds remaining to give the Bluebirds a 17-15 halftime lead.
The largest lead of the third quarter for Highlands was eight twice. Fisse made a three-pointer with 2:20 left to give the Bluebirds a 29-21 lead before making two free throws to give Highlands a 31-23 lead before Michaela Ware made a jumper to trim the margin to 31-25 entering the fourth quarter.
The Thoroughbreds trimmed the deficit to two three times in the fourth quarter. But the Bluebirds responded with a crucial bucket or free throws every time.
“We couldn’t tie it or take the lead,” Stoll said. “We couldn’t get over that hump. That was the biggest difference.”
Adler made a free throw with 1:15 left in the game to make the score 42-37 Highlands. Adler, Abner and Combs then made two free throws each to put the game away in the final 1:03.
“Our number one priority all year was getting ready for this game,” Combs said. “It means a lot. It pulled us together as a team.”
NewCath still had a good season despite its youth. The Thoroughbreds bettered last year’s win total by a game and finished All “A” State Runner-Up. They graduate just Jillian Hoover from this year’s team. Hoover unfortunately played just 10 seconds this year and scored a bucket on her senior night because of a torn Anterior Cruciated Ligament.