G. Michael Graham Photo. Highlands senior Vanessa Fisse (15) makes a move on Walton-Verona's Shelby Mullikan (15) in Saturday's game in Fort Thomas while teammate Ava Abner (22) gets in position. Highlands won 44-40 for its 21st win of the season.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team knew it would be tested Saturday as both teams geared up for the postseason.
Like many teams, Highlands has had its struggles in big games this season. But the Bluebirds (21-7) came through for a 44-40 home victory over the Walton-Verona Bearcats for their 15th win in 18 games. The Bearcats (16-8) won the 8th Region crown last year and had won four in a row coming into the game.
“Just being able to come through in a close game is great, especially a week before Districts start,” said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands head coach. “It’s about a year of maturity and doing the little things. We executed on offense and made some stops defensively.”
Every small thing made a huge difference in this one. Highlands needed to hit some outside shots because Walton-Verona packed the lane against the Bluebirds Twin Towers of Jesse “Dirt” Daley and Leah Schaefer.
The Bluebirds came through making 12-of-36 shots for 33 percent, including five three-pointers. On the other side, the Wildcats made 13-of-37 shots for 35 percent.
Schaefer still led Highlands with 10 points and Daley managed seven. But five of Daley’s points came from the free-throw line as Walton-Verona constantly challenged her when she attacked the basket.
“As you get older, you realize it’s not about how many you score,” Daley said. “It’s about whether the team wins. The amount of points and assists I had helped my team win. In order to be the best, you have to beat the best. That’s what we did.”
Those seven points put Daley into elite company as she joined the Highlands 1,000-point club for her career. The 1,000th point came at a crucial time with 36.9 seconds remaining. It gave Highlands a 42-38 lead.
Daley became the 16th girl in Highlands history to make the club. Schaefer also hit a free throw at home to reach quadruple-digits in the Bluebirds’ 64-30 season-opening win over Dixie Heights on Nov. 27. Daley has played basketball with many of her teammates for years.
“It means a ton,” Daley said of doing it the same season with Schaefer. “We’re really close. It’s cool to be able to walk back here in 20 years and see my name on the wall.”
Highlands made its free throws down the stretch to seal the win. The Bluebirds hit 15-of-21 for 71 percent overall, including 8-of-11 in the fourth quarter for 73 percent. Walton-Verona made 13-of-15 free throws for 87 percent.
Brianna Adler made all six attempts on her way to nine points for Highlands. Adler made two with 49.2 seconds to put the Bluebirds up 41-36 and two more with 6.5 seconds remaining to make the final score.
“In a close game like this, you have to make your free throws,” Adler said. “If you don’t, opponents have a good chance of catching up with you. We all have our own (free throw) routine. We shoot free throws every day in practice for at least 20 minutes.”
Hailey Ison scored with 38.6 seconds following Adler’s first pair of free throws to trim the Highlands advantage to 41-38. Ison then made two free throws with 29.7 seconds left to make the score 42-40.
Following a Highlands miss, the Bearcats had a chance to win the game. But Courtney Sandlin missed a three-pointer and Adler grabbed the rebound.
The Bluebirds led 33-32 entering the fourth quarter. After a Coffey free throw, Sandlin tied the game with two free throws. But Daley found Schaefer cutting to the rim and Schaefer made two free throws to put Highlands up for good at 36-34 with 5:48 left.
That’s when Ava Abner came up huge for the Bluebirds. Walton-Verona backed off her on the perimeter because Abner does not score much. But she let a three loose and made it to give Highlands a 39-34 advantage.
“It was about time,” Abner said. “I usually rely on my teammates to hit the big threes. They were relying on me for that one. I just did what my team needed.”
At the other end, Michele Judy scored with 2:50 left to make the score 39-36 Highlands. Walton-Verona took two timeouts with less than two minutes left before Judy Missed a shot near the basket and Coffey grabbed the rebound setting up the dramatics in the final minute.
Defensively, the Bluebirds contained the Bearcat inside-outside duo of Sandlin and Judy. Judy finished with 12 and Sandlin 11 after they scored 28 and 21 points respectively in a 64-54 win over Newport Central Catholic on Wednesday. Sandlin recently returned from a wrist injury.
“We told them before the game we had to know where those two are,” Richey said. “We can’t let those two beat us. We were going to let some of the other players shoot. But we really had to double down on Judy some.”
The game stayed close in the first quarter before Highlands finished it with a 7-0 run to go up 13-6. Emilie Parton made a three-pointer from the left corner with 45 seconds left to finish the run.
Highlands struggled in the second quarter losing it 16-5. Judy tied the game with 3:13 left in the half and Sandlin made a free throw and shot to put Walton-Verona up 20-16. Following two Daley free throws, Judy scored again to give the Bearcats a 22-18 halftime advantage.
But that lead did not last long. Highlands started the half with a 9-0 run. Adler made a three-pointer before Daley scored a bucket and hit two free throws and Coffey recorded a steal and fast-break score.
Walton-Verona did come back to tie the game at 28. But Vanessa Fisse untied it with a three-pointer to give Highlands a 31-28 advantage. Following an Ison score, Schaefer hit a lay-in in the center before Judy made two more free throws for the Bearcats.
Highlands closes out the regular season against Simon Kenton (23-4) on Thursday. Game time is 7:30 p.m.