COVINGTON – The hope entering Saturday’s 9th Region Basketball Tournament draw was to put yourself in the best position possible against the 35th District teams.
The Highlands Ladybirds and Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbred teams might have to beat both teams to win the region. Neither the Ladybirds (29-3 overall) nor the Thoroughbred girls team (19-12) drew one of them to open the tournament to be played at the Bank of Kentucky Center on the campus of Northern Kentucky University. But the three-time All “A” State champion Thoroughbreds (28-3) drew a quick rematch with 35th runner-up Covington Holmes (21-8).
Highlands won the 36th District Tournament for the second time in three years and faces 33rd runner-up Boone County (17-13) at 8 p.m. Monday. The winner faces either All “A” State and 35th champion Covington Holy Cross (26-3) or St. Henry (15-15) at 6 p.m. Saturday in the semifinals. Holy Cross enters the tournament on a 15-game winning streak and has that many wins against no defeats in region play.
Highlands enters the tournament on a 12-game winning streak. The Ladybirds have four seniors and hold a record of 6-2 against the rest of the field. They lost to Holy Cross, 40-39 in double overtime on Jan. 24 and to Holmes, 64-62 five days later. Their three losses have come by a combined six points.
Highlands handled Boone County, 66-47 on Feb. 10 in Fort Thomas. Zoie Barth scored 19 points to lead the Ladybirds in that win with Brianna Adler and Alex Combs scoring 15 each.
“They’ve been great,” said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. “We know we have to take it one game at a time. Right now, we have to turn our attention to Boone County and make sure we’re ready to go against a good Boone County team that did give us a good game in the regular season. Our juniors and seniors are very mature. They’re going to make sure they bring their A game every time they step out on the floor from here on out.”
Veteran Boone County Head Coach Nell Fookes described the season as inconsistent. Teams have to pick their poison with Highlands knowing the Ladybirds have a number of players who can light up the scoreboard on any given night. The five starters plus Barth average 6.2 points per game and higher. Adler, Lydia Graves and McKenzie Leigh average 11.4, 10.1 and 10 points per game respectively.
“I think we’re capable of putting together some good runs,” Fookes said. “Any way we look at it, it’s going to be tough. Jaime has done a great job with them and working on this team for several years now.”
Senior guards Alexis Switzer and Macey Ford lead Boone County averaging 12 and 10.6 points per game respectively. Highlands has beaten Boone County four straight times all since the Lady Rebels’ last region crown in 2012.
“It’s a matter of knowing what they do and making sure we stop that,” Richey said. “Anytime you play Boone County, you know Coach Fookes is going to have some tricks up her sleeve.”
NewCath won the region last year but knew things would be tough without the post play seen the last couple years from the graduated Nikki Kiernan and Alexus Mayes transferring to Holmes. The Thoroughbreds drew 34th District champion Dixie Heights (15-13) on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
But the Thoroughbreds have won many games with their well-documented on-ball pressure defense. Junior Ansley Davenport has picked things up averaging 14 points and 5.2 rebounds. Senior Michaela Ware averages 10.2 points per game and leads the pressure defense.
“I love our team right now,” said George Stoll, NewCath Head Coach. “We have a bunch of girls who are good teammates. It is nice to have five seniors who have experience winning on this floor. We hope it carries over to this year, but we’ll see.”
NewCath beat Dixie Heights, 51-36 on Dec. 10 on The Hill. Freshman Lexy Breen scored 14 to lead the Thoroughbreds that day with Ware, Loren Zimmerman and Sarah Neace scoring nine each.
“It’s been a while since we’ve played them,” said Tara Boothe-Smith, fourth-year Dixie Heights Head Coach and former Highlands and Xavier standout. “But it’s like a lot of teams up here who are guard-oriented. We’re going to have to slow the game down and handle their pressure or it’s going to be a long night for us.”
NewCath hopes to shoot well and slow down Dixie Heights senior post Liza Tibbs. Tibbs averages 15.6 points per game and sophomore Brooke Davis averages 9.5.
“It’s a battle of two different styles,” Stoll said. “They have the size and strength. We have the quickness. We have to contain Tibbs as much as we can. If we do okay on her, I think we have a shot. We have to defend the post and they have some shooters so we have to get up on the shooters.”
Smith said Dixie Heights has improved against the press since the first meeting. The winner faces either Ryle (15-11) or Covington Holmes (28-2) on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Dixie Heights owns two district championships since Smith became the head coach in 2011.
“It’s like night and day seeing where we were and where we are now,” Smith said. “That’s a direct reflection to the kids on the team. They make it easy to coach them when come out and play like they did in the district tournament.”
On the boys’ side, the Thoroughbreds find themselves where they were two years ago after winning their seventh straight district championship. They faced Holmes in the region quarterfinals and lost 55-50. NewCath brings an 18-game winning streak into the tournament.
“We have to be ready to play every night,” said Ron Dawn, NewCath Head Coach. “There won’t be an easy game in this tournament. We have a ton of guys with experience and they know what it takes to win something like this. We just have to go out and take care of business.”
Drew McDonald and Ben Weyer continue to give opponents fits inside with their 6-foot-7-inch and 6-6 frames respectively. McDonald averages 16.8 points per game and 10.8 rebounds with Weyer averaging 15.4 points and 7.2 rebounds.
Weyer scored 18 points in the 58-52 win.
But in that game, Holmes played without senior forward Roderick Avery. Avery averages 13.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
“We had to sit (Avery) out a game,” said Mike Listerman, Holmes Head Coach. “He’s taken to heart the lessons that had to be learned and he’s been back and very, very focused, which is exactly where I want him to be. Mentally, it’s a big lift to the team. We hope it materializes into a force in the game. Weyer lit us up last time. We hope to make some adjustments with Rod in the line-up to keep that from being such a differential.”
Avery gives the Bulldogs a post presence to free things up for the guards. Holmes is led by senior James Bolden. Bolden averages 19.6 points per game with juniors Markel McClendon and Marcus Mullins averaging 14.9 and 11 points respectively.
“You can’t shut (Bolden) down,” Dawn said. “You can’t let him have one of those nights where he goes for 30 or 40. That makes it tough. We will do our best to contain and see what happens.”
NewCath also has good guard play to make sure teams do not double down on the posts. Senior point guard Zack Pangallo leads the way there with 11.9 points per game.
The best part of the draw is NewCath would not see defending state champion Covington Catholic until the championship game Monday. The NewCath-Holmes winner faces either Dixie Heights (22-7) or Boone County (20-11) on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. NewCath finished 8-1 against the field.