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ABILENE â€” The Highland girls basketball team can check one more thing off its to-do list for 2014.
Thanks to a 51-37 win over Garden City in Saturday's Region II-1A, Division II final at Abilene Christian University, the Lady Hornets are returning to the state tournament in Austin for the second straight year.
That leaves one final, ultimate goal â€” the school's first-ever state championship in basketball. It's a goal the team has set for itself ever since losing to Saltillo 41-19 in the state semifinals a year ago.
To achieve it, Highland (28-3) will have to win two more games, both at the University of Texas' Frank Erwin Center.
The first will be at 1:30 p.m. this Friday, when the No. 2-ranked Lady Hornets face Calvert (24-1) in the state semifinals. Calvert was ranked No. 9 in the state at the end of the regular season.
If Highland survives that test, it will move into the title game against either No. 1-ranked Lipan or No. 3 Nazareth at 7 p.m. Saturday. Those teams will play each other in Friday's other semifinal.
The Lady Hornets received by far their most serious playoff test so far from Garden City, which also lost to Highland (47-29) in last year's regional final at ACU.
The No. 5-ranked Lady Kats (31-2) â€” scored the game's first basket, hounded Highland into more than its usual number of turnovers with some tenacious full-court defense and, after falling behind 10-2 midway through the first quarter, fought back to stay within striking distance for most of the game. In fact, they trailed only 15-14 at one point in the second quarter and were down by just three points on three occasions in the third period.
Garden City also frustrated Highland's leading scorer this season, 6-1 senior post Sierra Allen, who fouled out with 2:46 left in the game after scoring just five points, well under her season average of 17.3. Her 5-10 senior post teammate, Beth Richburg, departed less than a minute later after also drawing her fifth foul.
With all that, Highland still won the game rather convincingly â€” just not by the kind of lopsided margins it had run up in its first three playoff wins over Santa Anna, Cross Plains and Roby.
The Lady Hornets led 46-33 after Allen and Richburg departed. And they brought it home from there.
Garden City â€” which had trailed by 17, 46-29, earlier in the fourth quarter â€” got within 10 points twice, the last time at 47-37 with 29 seconds left. But then Madison Moseley, who led Highland with 17 points, re-asserted herself.
The 5-7 junior guard was fouled twice in the waning seconds, and hit two free throws before catching a pass from a teammate and hitting a layup at the buzzer to provide the final exclamation point.
For most of the night, it was Moseley who came through when the Lady Hornets needed it most. She converted two free throws following Hannah Allen's steal after Garden City got within 15-14, fueling an 8-3 run that made it 23-17 at halftime.
Moseley also scored to begin Highland's most decisive run of the game after the Lady Kats pulled back within three, 27-24, in the third quarter. Highland ran off 19 of the next 24 points for its biggest lead, 46-29. Six-foot senior post Schyler Kimbrell and 5-10 sophomore post Sydny Helbert each scored six points during that run,
"I'm feeling excitement," Moseley said afterward. "We knew they were good, but I had confidence in my teammates. We were pumped before the game."
"I'm feeling a little bit of everything right now," said Moseley's backcourt mate, 5-10 sophomore guard Hannah Allen, who is Sierra's younger sister. "We knew if we worked hard enough we could do it. We had two players foul out tonight, but everyone stepped up."
One of those who also stepped up at the beginning of the game was Kimbrell, who scored six of her 12 points during an early 10-0 run that gave Highland its 10-2 lead and forced Garden City to play catchup the rest of the way.
Kimbrell â€” the only new starter on this year's team â€” found herself with open jump shots three times at the top of the free throw circle during the early run after the Lady Kats double teamed Sierra Allen, and she converted each time.
"It made a difference in the game," she said. "When we got out to that lead we felt good about our chances. We weren't really worried, even though we were expecting them to come back. We had to put some of our younger ones in there when we got in foul trouble, and they did the job."
Sierra Allen, who will be playing basketball for ACU next year, may have experienced the biggest range of emotions of anyone Saturday.
Being held in check by Garden City was bad enough, but Allen called watching the final 2:46 from the bench after fouling out "probably the worst thing I've had to go through all year."
She felt better after the game ended, however.
"It (going back to state) is a dream come true," Allen said. "I'm so happy. Our players and coaches are just awesome.
"Next week it's in God's hands. We'll be trying for the gold, But if not, we'll still give glory to Him."
It's been quite a journey not only for Highland, but also for head coach Shea Baucom, who has guided the Lady Hornets to back-to-back state appearances in his second tour of duty at the school. Baucom first coached from 2000-09, establishing Highland as a perennial basketball power before taking two other coaching jobs over the next three years.
When Highland made its historic playoff run in his first season back, the Lady Hornets were unranked the entire year and became a Cinderella story by beating state-ranked Baird and Garden City â€” each by 18 points â€” en route to the regional title before falling to No. 1 Saltillo in the state semifinals.
It was totally different this time. With four starters and its top five scorers back, Highland began the season ranked No. 1 in Class 1A, Division II by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches. The Lady Hornets stayed there until mid-December, falling to No. 2 after they lost twice and Sierra Allen was forced to miss five games due to injury.
But since the start of district play Highland has lost just once in 15 games, and in that time was rarely seriously challenged until Saturday's game.
"Our girls have shouldered a lot of pressure all these months," Baucom said. "It was our goal to get back here, and we did. Tonight somebody stepped up every time we needed them to. The kids did a good job of getting in there and holding down the fort, and answering everything that (Garden City) did."
Now comes the last hurdle to the big prize.
"After getting down (to Austin) last year, we wanted to have another shot," Baucom said. "These kids are ready to compete for a trophy."