ABILENE — For the first 3 1/2 quarters of Friday’s Region II-A, Division II semifinal playoff, the Highland girls basketball team was able to match everything Newcastle could throw at them.
Holding a 47-44 lead with just 4:20 to play, the Lady Hornets appeared to be in great shape to reach the regional finals for only the second time in school history.
After all, Highland had owned the fourth quarter in each of its three playoff victories, overcoming a third-period deficit in two of them. And sure enough, another comeback seemed to be underway, as baskets by Callie Sandusky and Kara Hughey had wiped out Newcastle’s 44-43 lead at the end of the third quarter.
Slowly but surely, however, the Lady Hornets uncharacteristically began to unravel down the stretch. Highland didn’t make another basket while Newcastle caught fire.
The LadyCats took the lead for good (50-48) with 3:10 left, then sank 7-of-10 free throws to secure a 57-49 victory.
With the win Newcastle (30-5) advanced to Saturday’s regional final against Lipan, which was a big 57-30 winner over Roby in the other semifinal held Friday.
Highland finishes with a 22-12 record, falling just two victories short of advancing to the state tournament in Austin for the first time ever.
Sandusky, a 6-2 senior, ended her fine career by scoring 16 points to lead Highland and 5-10 freshman Sierra Allen added 13 in a game where neither team led by more than eight points.
And until the very end, neither could make their leads hold up.
Newcastle started quickly, taking a 12-4 lead, and after Highland cut it to 12-11, the LadyCats ran off six more points for an 18-11 lead. Newcastle started getting in foul trouble, however, and Highland took advantage to drastically turn things around at the end of the first half.
A 7-0 run gave the Lady Hornets a 22-20 lead, with Sandusky hit-ting the go-ahead shot with 3:23 remaining. Highland continued to gain momentum, as Sandusky and Allen had baskets in the final 26 seconds that pushed Highland’s lead to six, 30-24, at the break.
At that point, no Highland play-er had more than one foul and the Lady Hornets had just five as a team, while three Newcastle players already had three apiece.
In the third quarter, Highland held seven-point leads four times. But Newcastle ran off 10 straight points to lead 44-41 until Highland scored just before the end of the quarter to cut the LadyCats’ lead to a point, 44-43.
Highland, which had rallied from third-period deficits to beat Robert Lee and Wink at the start of its playoff run, then completed a 6-0 run that gave the Lady Hor-nets a three-point edge.
But the magic started to disap-pear after that. Highland can still take pride, however, in advancing to the playoffs for the 10th straight year and getting past the regional quarterfinals for the first time since 2008.
“We made mistakes, but overall I was pleased with the way we played,” coach Ryan Dollar said. “At this level (the officials) let you play rougher, and we didn’t do a very good job of handling it.
“Newcastle did exactly what we’d talked about defensively. We knew that it was coming and we had worked hard on (playing against) it in practice.”
The Lady Hornets’ future looks bright despite losing three seniors to graduation, including starters Sandusky and Shyan Womack. But Highland will still return its other three starters — juniors Kara Hughey and Jessica McCain as well as Allen, who is one of two freshmen — Beth Richburg being the other — that saw considerable playing time this year. Womack finished with eight points, all on free throws, while Hughey had seven, Richburg three and McCain two for Highland.