ABILENE — One of the few blemishes on the Highland girls basketball team's outstanding season came in the title game of Highland's tournament in early December when the Lady Hornets lost to Garden City, 31-24.
Highland got a chance Saturday afternoon to avenge that loss in a rematch with Garden City for the Region II-A, Division II championship.
And this time, it was the Lady Kats who were left feeling blue.
Highland (31-4) answered every challenge en route to a 47-29 victory at Abilene Christian University, advancing the Lady Hornets to the Class 1A, Division II state semifinals.
Unranked Highland, in its first state tournament appearance, plays top-ranked Saltillo (31-5) at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the University of Texas' Frank Erwin Center in Austin. The winner will advance to play No. 2 Whitharral or No. 25 Leakey for the championship at 7 p.m. Saturday.
By the way, is there any doubt — especially for those who saw them play this weekend — that Highland deserves to be ranked?
The last three wins have come against No. 16 Water Valley, No. 18 Baird and now No. 13 Garden City, and the average margin of victory has been almost 15 points.
On Saturday, the Lady Hornets exceeded their first-game total against Garden City by halftime. Highland enjoyed a terrific second quarter for the second straight game, allowing just one point en route to a commanding 25-12 halftime lead. A night earlier in the regional semifinals, Highland held Baird to two points in the second period to set the stage for a 55-37 win.
Garden City (29-6) was 0-for-10 from the field in the second quarter. The Lady Kats were coming off a superb defensive effort as well after beating Eula 45-9 in their regional semifinal.
Saturday's game actually started to turn in the first quarter, when Highland broke an 11-11 tie with a six-point run to end the period.
By the time the run ended, Highland held a 30-12 advantage early in the third quarter following a three-point play by Sierra Allen, who led all scorers with 22 points.
Garden City finally made a move, cutting it to 32-22 with 1:39 remaining in the third quarter. However, Highland — and Allen — heated up again as the junior post sparked an 8-2 run that got the lead to 16 points, 40-24, with 6:14 to play. The Lady Hornets held leads of between 15 and 18 points the rest of the game, even though both Allen and Beth Richburg fouled out in the fourth quarter.
Highland will be the first team from Nolan County to go to the state tournament since 2009 when Roscoe's boys and girls both made it, with the boys winning their first state title and the girls finishing as state runnerups.
It's a feeling that Highland's coach Shea Baucom has never experienced, even though he's led Highland to the playoffs nine times in the past 12 years. Baucom returned as Highland's coach this season after a three-year hiatus. He previously coached the Lady Hornets from 2000-09 before leaving to coach at Miles and Robert Lee, and Highland made the playoffs each of his last eight seasons.
Saturday marked only the second time a Baucom-coached team at Highland had reached the regional finals, the other time coming back in 2004.
"I'm excited for the kids," Baucom said. "I'm excited personally, but the smile on their faces means everything."
Madison Moseley added 14 points for Highland, which is 19-1 since its earlier loss to Garden City, the only loss to Valley in a warmup game for the playoffs.
"It's just awesome. Amazing," Moseley said. "I'm extremely surprised, and I'm so excited."
Similar statements came from other Highland players after the game.
"(Going to state) means everything," said Lora Stewart, who is the only senior starter for Highland and one of just two seniors on the team. "We've worked so hard for this. We wanted to be here."
She paused for a second. "It's just not real. It hasn't set in yet."
Allen, the team's leading scorer, had 45 points in the Lady Hornets' two games at the regional tournament. She and Richburg, the team's other starting post, gave Highland a clear height advantage over Garden City, which relied largely on its outside shooting but never found the range consistently.
"I wanted to help out any way I could," said Allen, a junior but a three-year starter. "We knew they were a good team and it would be tough. But I just felt like we were ready to go before the game. We were fired up. This is what we've worked for all year."
Baucom said that as the season progressed, his players gained confidence with each win and started to believe that they could reach their goal of going to the state tournament. And they didn't panic Saturday when both Allen and Richburg got into second-half foul trouble.
"Our kids are intelligent and they know to make adjustments on both ends of the floor," he said. "We got in some foul trouble the first time we played them. Today, we fouled some but it didn't hurt us as much. And we didn't turn the ball over near as much. When you do that, you can score more and have more success."
For the game, Highland shot a blistering 61 percent, making 20 of 33 from the field, while Garden City shot 20 percent (10 of 50).
Sydny Helbert scored six points, Richburg four, Stephanie Ashford two and Hannah Allen one to complete the scoring for Highland. Ashford, who is the other senior on the team, brought the bench to their feet when she scored the final points with 15 seconds to play.
Baucom said he didn't think Highland had the game won until he heard some of his girls talking with about 1 1/2 minutes to play.
"They were saying, 'I think we're going to state.' And I said, 'I think you're right.'"
The bus leaves for Austin later this week.