|PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands senior Alex Starkey (4) gets down in defensive stance in the 36th District championship Thursday.|
For the first time since 2014, both the Highlands basketball teams found themselves involved in it. The Highlands girls won the 36th District for the fifth straight year and the Highlands boys finished runner-up to Newport. All tournament games will take place at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University.
The Highlands boys (20-11 overall) drew the 33rd District champion Cooper Jaguars (24-5) for an 8 p.m. contest Monday. The Jaguars won the region two years ago and finished state runner-up to Bowling Green. Their head coach is Tim Sullivan.
"There are eight really good teams in our regional draw and if we played the regional tournament six or seven times, we'd probably have six or seven different region winners," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "Everybody that's left is good and everybody is playing well. It's going to be a really fun tournament. We have a challenge in front of us. The success of Cooper the last several years is something for us to deal with. But at the same time, we feel good about our squad and the kids that we've got."
Highlands finished 14-3 in 9th Region play including a 5-3 mark against the tournament field. The Bluebirds lost 52-41 to Cooper in Union on Jan. 15, 2019. Senior guard TJ Deere leads the Jaguars averaging 12.9 points per game with senior guards Blaine Walters and Ty Houston following at 12.3 and 11.8 points per game respectively. All three scored in double figures in the regular season meeting.
Cooper has outscored opponents, 1,736-1,322 on the season and has grabbed 954 rebounds. The Jaguars have made 609-of-1,340 shots on the season for 45 percent including 154-of-437 three-point tries for 35 percent and 334-of-462 free throws for 72 percent.
"When you play a Tim Sullivan team, you're going to get a team that's locked in defensively. That's well-prepared," Listerman said. "That's going to be efficient on offense and it's going to be a physical game. Possessions are going to be critical. But we have to be who we are and we have to take advantage of the things that we do well. The biggest thing is making the adjustments to the arena and hopefully, we shoot the ball well."
Highlands has outscored opponents, 1,919-1,679 on the season and averages 29.4 rebounds per game. Highlands has made 679-of-1,353 shots for 50 percent including 166-of-442 three-point tries for 38 percent and 307-of-526 free throws for 58 percent. Senior post Ben Sisson averages a double-double of 16.5 points and 10 rebounds per game and guard Ryan Leigh averages 12.3 points per game.
The Bluebirds have seen 2-2-1 full-court pressure defenses from Newport and Beechwood in recent games. They know the Jaguars might do something similar.
"We just need to relax and take care of the ball," Sisson said. "We'll work on it in practice a little bit making sure everyone is in the right spot and making the right decisions out there."
The semifinals are Friday and the championship game takes place Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Highlands last won the region tournament in 2001.