BETHALTO – Highland’s path to the Mississippi Valley Conference girls’ basketball title got a lot clearer Thursday.
The Bulldogs defeated host Civic Memorial, 54-36, and closed to within one win of clinching the conference championship. Highland, 18-1 overall, is 7-0 in the MVC and has three league games remaining. The Eagles are 13-5 and 4-2, with three of their losses – two in Valley – to Highland.
“This was a big swing game for us – a separation game,” said Bulldogs’ coach Mike Arbuthnot, a teacher at Roxana High and the Shells’ softball coach. “It’s a tribute to our veteran club.”
CM and Highland shared MVC honors last season, but it appears the Eagles best bet will be to finish second behind the Bulldogs this winter. Highland has won seven consecutive games. The Bulldogs started 11-0 before bowing to Breese Mater Dei in the Mascoutah Tournament.
“I would be shocked if anybody beats them twice in their last three conference games,” CM coach Jonathan Denney said. “They have a senior-laden team like we had last season. But we are green this season.”
For a half, the Eagles weren’t so young. They trailed 19-18 and had hopes of knocking off the Bulldogs. Yet Highland had other ideas.
The Bulldogs used erratic CM shooting and ball-handling in the second half to methodically increase their lead. Sophomore Madison Wellen stoked their offense by scoring a season-best 16 points. She made her first five shots and finished the night with 8-for-10 shooting, including a pair of treys.
“She has killed us in every game,” Denney said.
Arbuthnot noted, “It was her best game of the season and we needed it. The first half was a dogfight and then we opened it up a little bit in the second half. I like the way we responded. We got into the attack mode.”
Allie Troeckler’s 17 points paced CM and teammate Katelyn Turbyfill contributed nine points, including five on free throws. Journey Coffman added six points on a pair of treys.
However, the Eagles’ shooting turned cold in the third quarter when they made only 3 of 14 shots. Then nine turnovers in the fourth quarter enabled the Bulldogs to pad their advantage. CM had 19 turnovers in all.
“It was a lot of the same stuff from the first two times we played them,” Denney said. “The combined scoring difference from the first half of each game was a few points. And I thought that we grinded it out really well against them in the first half tonight.
“But the second half was just like the other two games. They pulled away from us with more hustle and effort. And our turnovers spelled disaster. You can’t do that against a team like Highland.”
Guard Amanda Ponce also spurred the Bulldogs in the second half by netting all of her 10 points. Overall, the Bulldogs made 21 of 39 shots, or 54 percent. They committed 10 turnovers. CM was 14 of 35 from the field and converted 7 of 12 free throws.
Denney said, “We didn’t answer Highland in the second half by matching their intensity.”
Arbuthnot figured it would take an intense effort to subdue the Eagles. “They play hard and we were a little sluggish in the first half," he said. "I thought our defense was good the whole game and we did a pretty good job on Troeckler in knowing where she was on the floor. She’s a great player.”
The rivals could clash again in the upcoming Class 3A Jersey Regional. Highland is playing host to a sectional.
HIGHLAND 54, CM 36
Highland 9 10 17 18 – 54
CM 9 9 8 10 – 46
Highland (18-1, 7-0) – Olivia LaPorta 9, Amanda Ponce 10, MaKenzie Kleinman 7, Emily VonderHaar 5, Madison Wellen 16, Bailey Leitschuh 7. 2FG-14 3FG-4 FT-8 PF-16
CM (13-5, 4-2) – Allie Troeckler 17, Katelyn Turbyfill 9, Kalyn Troxell 2, Journey Coffman 6, Kaitlyn Kappler 2. 2FG-13 3FG-1 FT-7 PF-10