The Ladybirds (22-8 overall) own a 15-2 record against region competition this year. Prior to Friday, the possibility of facing one of the two region teams Highlands lost to during the regular season in the region quarterfinals stood at 67 percent.
But that changed to 33 percent after the district championships concluded as the 2015 state champion Covington Holy Cross Lady Indians (18-10) took down defending region champion Covington Holmes (24-5), 47-39 in the 35th District championship. The two region losses for Highlands came the same week at Holy Cross (58-56 on Jan. 17) and to Cooper (74-63 on Jan. 19).
The Ladybirds had beaten the Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds (12-16), 69-41 on Thursday to win the 36th District Tournament. Around the same time in Florence, the Conner Lady Cougars (26-6) beat the Cooper Lady Jaguars (20-7), 61-57 to take home the 33rd District championship. By rule, district champions are paired with district runner-ups in the region quarterfinals and teams can't face district opponents until the region championship.
That left Holmes and the Lloyd Memorial as other possible region quarterfinal opponents. The Dixie Heights Lady Colonels (14-18) beat the Lloyd Memorial Lady Juggernauts (16-13), 56-46 in the 34th District championship game on Friday. The Ladybirds beat the Lady Bulldogs (62-49 on Feb. 6 in Fort Thomas) during the regular season, but did not play Lloyd Memorial.
When the draws finished, Highlands found itself with the task of having to beat those same Lady Jaguars on Monday at 6:30 p.m. to keep its season alive in the region quarterfinals at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University. Highlands has advanced to the region semifinals four straight years including last year with a 52-44 win over Holy Cross avenging a regular season defeat to the Lady Indians. The Ladybirds then lost 54-51 to eventual region runner-up Ryle in the semifinals.
"We just have to play as a team," said Lauren Epperson, Highlands senior forward. "We have to make sure we're there for each other at all times and pick each other up when we're down. I have confidence in every single one of my teammates so I think we'll be fine."
Epperson is one of four Highlands players who saw action in the region tournament last year. The other three are senior guard Emma Little, sophomore guard Zoie Barth and sophomore forward Chloe Jansen.
"It's another game," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "Both teams are going to have jitters. I hope the experience of Zoie playing in it a couple years will help her. It's 32 minutes. We have to be ready to go from the tip."
That could benefit Highlands since Cooper is making its first-ever region tournament appearance in its ninth year as a high school. Head Coach Nicole Levandusky took over the young program in 2013. Levandusky, a former basketball player at Xavier University, guided Notre Dame to a state runner-up finish in 2013.
"It's been a process," Levandusky said. "The biggest thing has been trying to keep the kids on course to buy in and trust in what we're doing. We've seen glimpses of it from day one. That first senior class, I always say I wish I had them two years, but unfortunately we didn't. We did what we could in the amount of time we had. From there, we've been growing. As every year has passed, we've done a little more. We finally got here."
Cooper seemed poised to break through with that elusive 33rd District semifinal win from the beginning of the season. The Lady Jaguars took down the host Boone County Lady Rebels, 69-54 to earn that huge win Tuesday. Cooper started the season 1-3, but has since earned quality wins over Holy Cross, Simon Kenton and Trimble County.
Both teams have shown balance all years. The Ladybirds have been led by senior guard Jenna Martin and Barth all season. Martin averages 17 points and 3.1 rebounds with Barth averaging 14.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. But Highlands has seen players such as Epperson, Jansen, seniors Taylor Baioni, Emma Little, Rachel Vinson, junior Brooke Dill in addition to sophomore Hannah Buecker have big scoring games. But they've also done little things such as playing defense and rebounding. Epperson averages a team-high 4.8 rebounds a contest.
"They know it's one-and-done. For these seniors, this could be their last game," Richey said. "They're laying it on the line. Everybody else is. We have to continue to do it. Our next game is Monday. We have to be ready to go. Every game, we try to come up with a game plan that will help us win. We have a very high IQ team that can take that game plan, apply it in games and do what we ask them to do."
Levandusky heaped a lot of praise on Martin. Martin has taken a team-high 380 shots and made 179 for 47 percent including 83-of-201 three-point tries for 41 percent and has also hit 67-of-88 free throws for 76 percent.
"Jenna is a phenomenal player. The thing I love about Jenna is she doesn't stop," Levandusky said. "She's always working non-stop. You can put a player on her. She doesn't put her head down. She finds a way to get the ball and do what she can for her team. They have other people to help as well. It's going to be an interesting game."
Highlands has outscored the opposition, 1,812-1,405. The Ladybirds have hit 628-of-1,461 shots for 43 percent including 209-of-571 three-point tries for 37 percent and 347-of-504 free throws for 69 percent. They've also nabbed 786 rebounds.
Cooper saw three players average double-figures prior to the final regular season 68-59 loss to Holmes. Junior guard Lexi Held has led the way averaging 17.4 points per game through 24 games with senior guard Hailey Anderson averaging 13.2 and junior guard Asyah Mitchell at 11.3 a game. Anderson and Mitchell are also Cooper's leading rebounders.
Held had a double-double of 19 points and 12 rebounds in the win over Highlands with Anderson scoring 13 and grabbing nine rebounds. Mitchell scored 12 in that game with senior forward Hailey Nicholas adding 11 and junior guard Emily Bleska nine.
Cooper had a chance to go ahead late in the loss to Conner in the 33rd District championship game. But the three-point attempt did not down.
"That's the game," Levandusky said. "Your shots aren't always going to go. We missed a lot of shots that we typically make. But that's why you play the game. We decided at the end that we had to make some changes. We made a game of it, which was nice to see from our behalf. I wish we would have done that from the beginning."
Richey enters the game two wins shy of a milestone victory. Highlands stands two wins shy of 300 at 298-156 overall since Richey took over as head coach in 2002.