|Highlands Struggles in Clutch Moments|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior guard Brooke Dill goes up for the score in the first half in the 9th Region Quarterfinal game against Conner.|
The Highlands Bluebirds girls basketball team (24-8 overall) has won 20-plus games in six straight seasons consistently challenging for the 9th Region crown. But it always seems like there is one or two teams that are a little better than the Bluebirds.
This year, those two teams were the 33rd District rivals Conner Lady Cougars and Ryle Lady Raiders. Highlands drew Conner (23-8) for the region quarterfinals after losing to the Lady Cougars twice during the regular season. The third time did not prove to be the charm as Conner eliminated Highlands, 54-46 at BB&T Arena in Highland Heights on Monday.
Highlands has lost in the region quarterfinals two years in a row. The 33rd District Tournament runner-up Cooper Lady Jaguars beat the Bluebirds, 77-62 in the same round last year. The Bluebirds are 7-8 in region quarterfinals games since Jaime Walz-Richey became head coach in 2002.
Richey pointed out the Bluebirds won the rebounding battle, 24-21 and held Conner to 3-of-8 from three-point range for 37.5 percent. But Conner made 19-of-34 shots for just under 56 percent compared to 18-of-42 for just under 43 percent for the Bluebirds. Highlands made just 2-of-11 three-point tries for 18 percent.
"In other games, they killed us on (three-pointers)," Richey said. "We just have to be able to execute when it's crunch time. We had some mishaps that we usually don't. That happens, but we were't able to overcome it. We usually don't turn it over against the press like we did."
Junior guard Courtney Hurst hurt the Bluebirds again leading Conner with 19 points making two three-pointers. Junior forward Maddie Burcham added 15.
"We've been talking about that all year long," said Aaron Stamm, Conner Head Coach. "They don't necessarily always trust us (coaches). They don't trust each other all the time. If they ever just used that word on the floor, we were going to be tough to beat. I love Jaime and (Highlands Assistant Coach) Bert (Richey). It's ashame we drew the first game. We've always had this friendship of let's Meet in the semifinals so somebody was going to be able to be in the finals. They're always ready to play. It's a credit to them to be as good as they are year-in and year-out and we gave credit to our kids for playing well (Monday)."
Hurst guarded Highlands junior guard Zoie Barth for much of the night holding Barth to eight points - 11 below her season average. Others tried to pick up the slack. Sophomore Piper Macke led Highlands with 11 points and junior guard Ashley Hayes scored 10. Barth led Highlands with eight rebounds.
Junior Chloe Jansen and senior Brooke Dill recorded offensive putbacks to give Highlands an early 4-0 lead. After Conner tied it, Barth found Dill for a score on the left post to make it 6-4 Bluebirds. But Conner went on a 5-0 run to go up 9-6 and led 13-10 after one.
The defensive battle continued into second quarter. Highlands took the lead at 19-18 with 2:15 left in the second quarter when freshman post Rory O'Hara found Hayes for the score. Conner led 24-21 at halftime.
The Bluebirds struggled offensively for the first three minutes, 30 seconds of the third quarter. Conner built a 30-21 lead at that point until Hayes it a three-pointer. The teams exchanged buckets and free throws the rest of the quarter. The Lady Cougars led 40-30 entering the final quarter.
"The biggest thing is we needed to speed the game up, try to make it aggressive and try to keep it out of Zoie (Barth's) hands," Stamm said. "That is hard to do. We were able to do that a bit and make other people try to make some shots. They're capable of doing that. But Zoie is a 25 a night if you don't guard her. In the third quarter, we made some shots as well."
Highlands cut the lead to 45-40 with 4:17 remaining when Macke hit a lay-up. But the Bluebirds came no closer after that.
The Bluebirds shot free throws better making 8-of-12 for 67 percent. Conner hit 13-of-21 for 62 percent.
Highlands had 11 turnovers, four assists and nine steals. Conner had 12 turnovers, three assists and seven steals.
Highlands returns every player but Dill next season. Dill became the first player since 2001 to win four 36th District championships in four years of high school.
"That's what we talked about after the game to those girls," Richey said. "Every day, Brooke came to the gym. She was going to work her tail off. She was going to push her teammates. We talked about all the time she's put in the armory. She's a two-sport star that puts a lot of time into both sports. During softball, she's up at the armory with her dad. That's unbelievable. She was going to be right where she was supposed to be."
Jansen, Barth and O'Hara started all season with Hayes and junior Hanna Buecker taking turns starting at the fifth spot. Key reserves such as freshman Kenzie Nehus will continue to give the Bluebirds depth.
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