Pearce, Prince lift Owls past determined Golden Bears
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For a young team, it’s always good to have achievement milestones to measure itself by. Highlands obtained one of those last Friday, when it recorded its 20th victory of the season.
The Owls (20-10, 9-3) defeated Edison (12-17, 5-6) 63-56 at Lanier to reach the 20-win mark for the first time in three years. It has been a long climb for Highlands to that summit. Two years ago, its last in Class 5A, the team finished 6-26 overall and was winless in 10 district games.
This year, Highlands has held third place in District 28-4A for most of the season. Edison is in fifth.
“We’ve been playing really well,” Owls coach Adrianna Wiatrek said. “We didn’t play too well but, before that, I’ve been happy with the way we’re playing. And, of course, we still beat Edison.”
The victory was Highlands’ sixth in seven games.
Highlands had an 11-7 lead after one quarter and Edison was within 31-29 at halftime. The Owls extended their lead in the third quarter, outscoring the Golden Bears 15-10 with help from do-it-all junior Emily Pearce (10 points).
“Emily hasn’t been one of our main scorers,” Wiatrek said, “but she hit back-to-back three(-point baskets). That was what got us over the hump. For the last two games, she’s been at eight or 10 points. She’s usually around two or three points.”
From there, Highlands relied on standout sophomore Aaliyah Prince. Prince produced 22 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, six steals and four blocked shots for her best overall performance of the season.
“Pretty much, Aaliyah put us on her shoulders and carried us,” Wiatrek said. “She only had eight points in the second half. With her defense and getting other girls to score, she kept us going.”
Jazmine Jackson contributed 10 points and freshman guard Kiara Pesina scored eight, but both of them fouled out, so Highlands had to rely on help from junior Jina Lackey (7 points) and senior Mercedes Reyes (6 points).
“Our bench is doing well,” Wiatrek said. “Jina Lackey has been coming off the bench, but she’s used to being a starter. Mercedes Reyes has been doing a pretty good job coming off the bench. She’s been getting rebounds and putting in some shots.”
Junior Amy Marcos led Edison with 14 points, eight rebounds and two steals. Marisa Salas contributed 13 points and three assists. Jody Alatorre finished with nine points, six rebounds and two blocked shots.
Despite the win, Highlands made just eight of 25 free throws (40 percent).
“One thing we have to improve is our free-throw shooting,” Wiatrek said. “We’re also been giving away too many turnovers. Those are the key aspects we have to fix.”
Highlands was scheduled to face second-place Brackenridge (21-5, 10-1) Wednesday.
The Owls biggest challenges in that game will be their main concerns as they prepare for the playoffs. Brackenridge fed on Highlands mistakes for a 67-45 win Dec. 13, in the first round of district play.
“We’d break the press, but then turn the ball over when we had a two-on-one or three-on-two break,” Wiatrek said. “That game we ended up with 35 turnovers, which is just unheard of. For a team (Brack) that wants to run, that’s like death.”
Obviously, though, the positive Highlands can build on for Wednesday is its ability to break Brackenridge’s press, which fuels the Eagles’ offense.
“It’s a positive and a negative for us,” Wiatrek said. “They want to share the ball that much. It’s good that they want to keep the ball moving and get everybody involved, but we need better decision-making.”
She attributes the decision-making dilemmas to relative inexperience.
“I guess its the maturity level,” Wiatrek said. “I don’t have a true leader. My best players are freshmen and sophomores. So it’s like the young leading the young.”
The benefits will be reaped over the next couple of years, but Highlands has restored itself as a playoff team and a program to watch in Class 4A.
“I still don’t feel like we’ve peaked,” Wiatrek said. “We’re still trying to get to that point. I’ve been telling the girls every day in practice, once it all clicks, you’re going to be amazed.”