|Highlands Girls Hoops Hangs On for Region Win|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands freshman Kenzie Nehus (3) makes a move toward the basket in a recent game. Highlands beat Beechwood, 42-39 on Friday to finish the regular season 22-7 overall.|
But the important thing is it came in the last game of the regular season and the Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team (22-7 overall) came away with a 42-39 9th Region victory Friday in Fort Mitchell. The Bluebirds moved to 11-4 in region action with their 11th victory in 12 games and seventh straight win over the Lady Tigers (4-23) in seven seasons. Highlands also equaled the win totals of the last two seasons.
"We just talked about after the game, our intensity level, focus," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "It just didn't feel like we had it for 32 minutes. I thought Beechwood did great. They made us take some shots we shouldn't be taking. They made us pay on the offensive end."
The Bluebirds played without their leading scorer in junior guard Zoie Barth as part of a coach's decision. Barth averages 19.7 points per game and 6.1 rebounds.
Highlands wound up struggling offensively against the Beechwood 1-2-2 zone defense. The Bluebirds hit 17-of-52 shots for just under 33 percent including 2-of-18 three-point tries for 11 percent. Highlands also hit just 6-of-11 free throws for 55 percent.
Junior Chloe Jansen led Highlands with seven points. Nine different Bluebirds scored as the coaching staff pulled the starters in the third quarter.
"(The starters) weren't doing everything we wanted to," Richey said. "I didn't want to risk injury. So I gave them the rest of the night to watch their teammates play."
Beechwood and first-year Head Coach Keith Johnson have just one senior in guard Madison Stokes and one junior in guard Meredith Johnson. Those two start along with a sophomore and two freshmen. Freshman guard Meredith Ruhland led everyone with 11 points. Beechwood made 17-of-36 shots for 47 percent including 4-of-14 three-pointers for 29 percent. Stokes hit the team's lone free throw.
Highlands started to pull away in the third quarter with full and half-court pressure. The Bluebirds recorded 12 steals off 19 Beechwood turnovers while the Lady Tigers had just five steals off nine Highlands turnovers. Sophomore Piper Macke led Highlands with three steals.
The Bluebirds also won the rebounding battle, 28-25 and had 10 assists to five for Beechwood. Freshman Emma Riccobene led Highlands with five rebounds.
Highlands led just 8-4 after one and 17-16 at halftime. Sophomore Maggie Hinegardner hit a three-pointer with 50 seconds left in the half to give the Bluebirds a 17-14 advantage. Carlie Arlinghaus hit a jumper at the other end to make the halftime score with two seconds left.
"We learned that we have to come out even in warm-ups focused and ready to play when we step out on the court in the first place," Hinegardner said. "I think we need to get ready even when we're missing somebody."
Highlands built the lead to nine points three times in the third quarter. A Rory O'Hara with 1:50 left in the third quarter put the Bluebirds up 31-22 after three.
The Bluebirds then saw Meghan Walz hit two free throws and a lay-up with 6:11 left in the game to give Highlands it biggest lead of 39-24. But Beechwood responded with eight straight to trim the margin to 39-32 with 4:25 left before Riccobene scored to make it 41-32 Bluebirds with 3:30 to go.
"It gives (the reserves) game experience," Richey said. "We were up nine points. We talked about it in a time-out. They are in a zone. We should not be shooting three's up nine so I'm hoping they learn this more and understand game and time situations are huge."
Beechwood missed out on a chance to tie the game late before the time ran out. The Lady Tigers made the final score with 10 seconds left when Arlinghaus scored.
Highlands earned the top seed in the 36th District Tournament and will play either Dayton (13-16) or Bellevue (18-11) on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in Fort Thomas. The Bluebirds have won the tournament four of the past five years.
Beechwood 52, Highlands 43:
The Bluebirds (13-14 overall) had another chance to go above .500, but could not get the job done against the host Tigers (18-12). Highlands has lost three straight to Beechwood in the series.
Highlands held Beechwood to 12-of-38 shooting from the field including 5-of-15 from three-point range for 33 percent. But the Tigers made 23-of-26 free throws for 89 percent. Senior forward Ben Toebbe and freshman guard Scotty Draud led the Tigers with 18 points each. Toebbe made 12-of-13 free throws.
"I don't know that it's necessarily desire because our kids want to win as bad as anybody else," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "It does come down to making plays at times. We had a defensive rebound on our fingertips that we didn't corral. We had a put-back that we didn't stick in. We were in scramble mode and we left a shooter and they banged in. Those three things at about the two-minute mark really turned the complexion of the game and turned what was a one-possession game into a three-possession game. Those are things we have to continue to work on."
Highlands made 17-of-42 shots for 41 percent including 2-of-12 three-pointers for 17 percent and 7-of-9 free throws for 78 percent. Junior guard Alex Starkey led the Bluebirds with 10 points.
Highlands won the rebounding battle, 27-26. Junior Ben Sisson and senior Tyler Gulley led the way with six rebounds and one blocked shot each. Gulley scored nine points and Sisson had eight.
"We did some good things," Listerman said. "We're still growing and hopefully, we get the right balance and we make those plays down the stretch on Wednesday night."
Turnovers did not help the Bluebirds. They had 16 to eight for Beechwood. Highlands also had just one steal to eight for the Tigers. The Tigers outscored the Bluebirds off turnovers, 25-6.
Highlands led for part of the first quarter. But the Tigers finished it with eight straight to go up 13-8.
The Bluebirds trimmed the margin to 20-17 before six unanswered Beechwood points gave the Tigers a 26-17 advantage. But Carl Schoellman made a three-pointer and Griffin Huber put in an offensive rebound to make it 28-25 Tigers at halftime.
Highlands took the lead in the third quarter when Sisson scored a coast-to-coast bucket. A Starkey score and two Nate Roberts free throws gave the Bluebirds a 35-31 advantage with 41.4 seconds left. Highlands led 35-33 entering the fourth quarter.
Beechwood retook the lead early. But Sisson hit four straight free throws to put Highlands up 39-37 with 6:01 remaining. But Toebbe put in an offensive rebound and Zach Deatherage hit a three-pointer to give the Tigers the lead for good at 42-39.
Sisson then found Huber for the score with 5:10 left to trim the margin to 42-41. After pulling the ball out and forcing Highlands to come out of the zone defense, Draud made a three-pointer with 2:35 left in the game. The Tigers then made 6-of-8 free throws down the stretch to pull away.
Highlands takes on Newport Central Catholic (15-11) in the district semifinals Wednesday in Fort Thomas. Game time is 8:15 p.m.
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