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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Changing the Culture

Highlands discovers balance during recent stretch

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands Head Coach Kevin Listerman (center) gives instructions during the win over Newport on Saturday. Highlands takes on Ryle at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
If four wins in the past five games is a great indication, the Blue and White will bring plenty more smiles to the players, coaches and supporters before the season ends.

The Highlands Bluebirds basketball team (7-9 overall) knew it had the size and depth to put together a good season. But it turned into a matter of utilizing those weapons to develop the balance consistently on both the offensive and defensive ends. Highlands turned some corners in victories over Hart County (77-39) and Russell County (70-53) in the Magnolia Bank Holiday Classic at LaRue County on Dec. 29 and 30 respectively.

The Bluebirds then saw what it will take to become a 9th Region contender in a 55-45 defeat at Cooper before pulling off a huge 76-71 36th District victory over Newport on Saturday. Highlands then followed that up with a solid 69-58 win over Conner to move to 4-3 in 9th Region action Tuesday.

"It feels great. Some of the guys who don't get in are still cheering for everyone," said Alex Starkey, Highlands sophomore forward. "When we have that type of energy, we're a hard team to beat. I don't think we've had that in the past."

Highlands has received the consistency it expected out of senior 6-foot-5-inch post Kyle Finfrock all season. Finfrock averages 14.4 points per game and 9.7 rebounds per game. After that, opponents have tried to take away senior guard Bryce Traylor, who averages 8.3 points per game.

But lately, it has not been easy to focus attention on even those two because others have emerged with big games to give Highlands that needed balance. Traylor and junior guard Jacob Noe scored 11 points in the win over Conner with senior guard Bradley Greene and senior forward Luke LaFrange adding seven.

In the win over Newport, sophomore forward Ben Sisson had 16 points and six rebounds with junior forward Griffin Huber scoring 11. But when they don't score, the players do other things to help Highlands win. Huber often draws the top assignment defensively. Highlands has an impressive 18 assists against Conner. Huber had six with Posey dishing out five and Greene four.

"We thought we could do some things with our personnel based on match-ups," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "It's just a process. We kept telling our kids to be patient. You never know on any given night who's going to be the guy who gives us the spark. That's just a tribute to our kids being locked in and understanding what we're trying to do."

Highlands has outscored the opposition, 1,011-991 for an average of about 63-62. The Bluebirds have hit 311-of-646 shots for 48 percent and 165-of-256 free throws for 65 percent. They've made 88 three-pointers this year.

It seems as though Highlands may be forcing things on offense at times still. But Listerman said it's okay to take chances to a point.

"We give our guys a lot of freedom on offense," Listerman said. "The thing about that is they understand if they play at the defensive end, I'm going to live with some mistakes and freedom on the offensive side. The biggest things is we have number 25 (Finfrock) on our team and he has to get some touches."

Highlands has 408 rebounds on the season for an average of 25.5 per game. The Bluebirds out-rebounded the Cougars, 34-23 on Tuesday.

Newport and Conner tried to make the game up-tempo on Highlands. The Bluebirds struggled with full and half-court pressure in some of their losses this year. The Wildcats and Cougars had some success with it, but Highlands has handled that pressure lately.

"(Coach Listerman) pressures (the Highlands ball-handlers) during practice," LaFrange said. "They're just getting better and better each day. They're driving. They're kicking it out. They're doing their jobs and it's up to the shooters and the other people to finish. When they distribute the ball, I think we're unstoppable."

The next challenge for Highlands comes Thursday in Union. The Bluebirds take on the Ryle Raiders (9-8) at 7:30 p.m. Senior guard Braden Cheesman averages 14.4 points per game to lead Ryle and senior guard Aaron O'Hara averages 9.8. Sophomore forward Vince Rankin gives the Raiders balance averaging 9.2 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds per game.

"(Ryle Head Coach) David (McFarland) does a great job," Listerman said. "They play hard. They guard well. I think it will be a very physical game like we played (Tuesday). It will be a very well-played game. It's kind of a fun week to play this kind of game in the middle of January. I think our kids have responded well and hopefully we can keep it going."

Highlands then travels to nearby Dayton (4-12) for another 36th District contest Saturday. That game also starts at 7:30 p.m.

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