BY RON HOWELL
AUSTIN — A week earlier, they ruled the court at the Region II-A, Division II basketball tournament in Abilene, winning both of their games by 18 points.
But Highland’s Lady Hornets met their match Friday in Austin when they faced Saltillo, whose Lady Lions lived up to their No. 1 ranking — winning 41-19 in the Class 1A, Division II semifinals to end the greatest Highland girls basketball season ever.
It was not only the first time Highland (31-5) had ever sent a girls team to the state tournament, but the first time the Lady Hornets faced a team that could match their height and defensive intensity.
Saltillo (32-5), making its first state tournament appearance since 2001, never trailed as it advanced to the title game on Saturday to play Whitharral.
While Highland held the Lady Lions to 33 percent shooting, Saltillo’s defense did a bigger number on the Lady Hornets. Highland was a frigid 6-of-32 from the field, or 19 percent.
That was a far cry from the 61 percent (20 of 33) it shot in beating Garden City for the Region II title.
In addition, Highland turned the ball over more than usual early in the game, which allowed Saltillo to take a 13-2 lead after the first quarter. Highland’s only points came on a field goal by Sierra Allen with 3:20 left in the period.
The Lady Hornets also hit only one field goal in the next two quarters, both by Beth Richburg, who led Highland with six points. They trailed 21-7 at the half and 27-9 after three quarters, and never got closer than 14 in the second half.
Highland’s inability to find the range was largely due to Saltillo’s defensive effort on Allen, Highland’s 6-1 junior post who came in averaging close to 20 points a game. She had just four in Friday’s contest.
The only player on either team who reached double figures was Saltillo’s Kendall Bain, who had 14 points.
Freshman point guard Hannah Allen, the younger sister of Sierra, also had four points. Sophomores Madison Moseley and Kaylee Martin had two points and freshman Sydny Helbert scored one point. Richburg, by the way, is a junior.
Highland should be load-ed up for another great run next year, as the team loses only two seniors — Lora Stewart and Stephanie Ash-ford — and returns four of its five starters plus several top reserves.
“(Saltillo) is definitely the biggest team we’ve faced,” Highland coach Shea Baucom said.
“They were doubling down on (Sierra) and trying to deny her the basketball, so we made adjustments and moved some things around. But we just couldn’t get (shots) to fall early, and they made it difficult to rebound. The momentum just started building up against us and we got a little antsy for awhile.
“But the kids kept playing hard. That was a great thing to see. (Saltillo) just got a couple of shots to fall earlier than we did and that loosened them up. We just couldn’t get the shots to go. If we had, things might have been different.
“They’re the No. 1 team in the state, but the competitive side of me says I don’t think they’re 22 points better than us.”
And they may get another shot at the title in 2014.
“The wounds are still pretty fresh,” Baucom said. “But I think once they get a good night’s rest and can reflect a little, they’ll start thinking about how they want to get back next year.”