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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Bluebirds Fall Short in 9th Region Quarterfinals

Cooper Run in Third Dooms Highlands 

Highlands senior Ben Sisson (30) tries to block the shot attempt of Cooper's Ty Houston (21) in the 9th Region Quarterfinals on Monday.
The Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team (20-12 overall) knew it had to match the defensive intensity of the Cooper Jaguars (25-5) to earn its first 9th Region win since 2009.

The Bluebirds did that in the first holding a narrow 15-13 advantage. But the Jaguars came out sizzling in the third quarter building a 12-point lead, which was more than enough to go on to win 47-37 in the 9th Region Quarterfinals on Monday at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University.

Highlands made just 14-of-39 shots for 36 percent including 1-of-10 from three-point range for 10 percent and 8-of-12 free throws for 67 percent. Cooper made 17-of-43 shots for 31 percent including 3-of-10 from three-point range for 30 percent.

"They hit some shots. That's what it came down to ultimately," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "They were able to stretch the lead. They're a very difficult team to come back on because they have so many guys that can handle the ball on the perimeter and create so many match-up difficulties."

The Jaguars did win the rebounding battle, 33-24 including 11-7 on the offensive glass. Cooper outscored Highlands, 15-8 in second-chance points.

In the final game of an outstanding career, Highlands senior post Ben Sisson scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds. Sisson also blocked three shots and recorded two assists. Senior Nate Roberts also had eight points, but no one else scored more than six.

Senior guard Ty Houston led the Jaguars with 19 points and seven rebounds. Senior guard Caleb Hampton followed with 12 points. Cooper outscored Highlands, 1.02-.77 in points per possession.

"You have to have (solid defense), especially at this time of the year," said Tim Sullivan, Cooper Head Coach. "When you get into a region tournament, you have to physical. You have to understand that you have to sit down and guard in the half-court because if you can't anyone in half-court at this time of the year, you're going to get lit up real quick. We pride ourselves on that defensive end. I'm proud of the way our kids responded against a tough, hard-nosed (team). Kevin does such a great job with that group."

Highlands finished with three assists, three steals, three blocked shots, nine turnovers and 16 fouls. Cooper had no steals, no blocked shots, two assists, 14 fouls and seven turnovers.

Neither team scored a lot in the first quarter. Roberts made a triple from the right corner with 2:25 left to put Highlands up 6-5.

The Bluebirds did go up 15-9 after Sisson made 3-of-4 free throws with 1:20 left in the quarter. But scores by senior guard Michael Spencer and Hampton trimmed the margin to 15-13 at halftime.

Cooper started the second half with a 9-0 run. Senior guard Blaine Walters made a three from the left wing and Houston had an offensive putback to give the Jaguars a 22-15 advantage.

"We started moving the ball more," Sullivan said. "Instead of on the bounce, we started trusting it with the pass and Ty Houston woke up. We have to have (Houston) playing like that for 32 minutes because all of a sudden, he's aggressive and the others feed off that."

Walters hit a jumper with 1:50 left in the third to put Cooper up 31-19. The Jaguars led 33-22 entering the fourth quarter.

Highlands did go on a 6-0 run to trim the Cooper margin to 35-28 with 4:48 left in the quarter, but came no closer. Sophomore Sam Vinson spearheaded the run with two scores. He also recorded a steal and found senior Alex Starkey for the score.

But Cooper made its free throws down the stretch. The Jaguars hit 10-of-12 to ice the game.

"That's what a senior-lead, mature team is supposed to do," Sullivan said. "We talk about handling adversity. It's a game of runs. You can't lose your mind just because someone's making some shots. You have to figure out how to cut that out then on offense, not put that pressure on your defense."

The Jaguars extended the winning streak to nine in a row in the series. It was the only streak of eight or more consecutive losses against region opponents that Highlands did not snap. The Bluebirds did snap eight-game losing streaks against Covington Catholic, Covington Holy Cross and Dixie Heights in addition to a 17-game losing streak against Covington Holmes and a 16-game losing streak against Newport Central Catholic.

Highlands graduates nine seniors from the squad. They are Sisson, Starkey, Roberts, Will Salmon, Austin King, Tristan Thompson, Grady Cramer, Ryan Leigh and Jack Hegge.

"I'm just super proud of them as a group more because of the young men that they are and the way that they committed themselves to the process of becoming a really good basketball team," Listerman said. "They showed up every day to work. When you have nine seniors, they all know they can't get on the floor all the time and you would have never known that in any of our practices and what color jersey they were wearing in practice. The legacy of this group is going to be the wins, but more importantly the impact that they had on our program about how to become really, really good basketball players and more importantly, great young men."

The Bluebirds still made the region tournament for the first time since 2014. They also hit 20 wins in a season for the first time in 10 years.

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