|Fourth Quarter Dooms Bluebirds|
|PHOTO: G. Michael Graham. Highlands Head Coach Kevin Listerman goes over strategy in the 36th District championship against Newport at Newport Central Catholic|
Highlands (20-11 overall) just needed to hold that lead in order to earn its first 36th District championship since 2008. But the Bluebirds did not score again until 59.3 seconds remained in the game when Vinson laid one in the left side ending a 12-0 Newport Wildcat run. The top-seeded Wildcats (24-8) held on for a 64-61 victory for their second straight district championship at Newport Central Catholic.
Newport employed a 2-2-1 full-court trapping defense similar to what Beechwood employed in the regular season finale. The Tigers forced the Bluebirds into 20 turnovers and the Wildcats forced 13 Highlands turnovers.
"We tried to pick up pressure. They were running really good half-court stuff in their offense," said Rodney Snapp, Newport Head Coach. "We wanted to speed them up trying to get them out of their comfort zone, looking for a back tip. We told them we've been in this situation. The kids listened. They kept together, kept their composure."
Highlands won the rebounding battle, 35-30. The Bluebirds made 25-of-51 shots for 49 percent including 8-of-17 three-point shots for 47 percent to go with 13 assists, three blocked shots, six steals and 15 fouls.
"Give (Newport) credit. They switched the defenses and we didn't finish a couple play," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "We had a couple of looks at the basket inside the lane and didn't finish. If we finish those, it's a different story. But they made plays down the stretch. (There were) a couple of tough whistles that are head-scratchers."
The biggest one for Highlands came with under 20 seconds left in the game. Highlands senior Ben Sisson battled Newport senior forward Tahj Harding for a rebound. Sisson appeared to grab it and put it in also drawing the foul. But Sisson received a push-off call and Harding made both free throws to put Newport up 61-56.
At the other end, Vinson laid one in and senior forward Makhi McGuire hit 1-of-2 free throws to put the Wildcats up 62-58. But senior guard Jack Hegge made a triple from the right corner with 4.1 seconds left to cut the lead to 62-61.
Highlands quickly fouled Harding. After Harding made both free throws, Vinson put up a nice shot near half-court, but it missed ending the game.
Both teams saw three players score in double figures. Senior Nate Roberts led the Bluebirds with 14 points to go with seven rebounds, three steals and two assists. Sisson finished with a double-double of 12 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots and a steal. Vinson finished with 11. Vinson and Sisson made the all-tournament team.
McGuire led Newport with 23 and senior guard Donnie Miller had 18 with Harding scoring 13. Miller gave the Wildcats the lead for good with 3:10 left.
Newport made 23-of-59 shots for 39 percent including 5-of-16 three-point shots for 31 percent. The Wildcats also had 11 assists, seven steals, two blocked shots, six turnovers and 13 fouls.
"When they had six team fouls (in the second half) with the score, we could spread you out," Snapp said. "Harding is such a good ball-handler. He can create off the dribble trying to get others involved. That was our plan. We put two guys in the corner. We wanted to get downhill. Our guy on the back side will cut trying to get something out of it. We feel like we have seven guys at any time can take you off the dribble trying to create."
Free throws made a huge difference in the game. The Wildcats made 13-of-16 for 81 percent and the Bluebirds made just 3-of-6 for 50 percent.
"That's probably the bigger story (than the misses)," Listerman said. "I'm not sure how, but we did not get to the free-throw line. In a game like this, free throws are huge."
Newport beat Highlands, 66-64 in Fort Thomas on Dec. 17 to earn the top seed. The Wildcats have won four straight in the series.
The 9th Region draw occurs Saturday morning at Covington Holmes. Highlands will face 33rd District champion Cooper, the 34th District champion in either Dixie Heights or St. Henry or 35th District champion Beechwood.
"This is an emotional week so playing on Thursday gives us a chance to recollect ourselves," Listerman said. "Once we figure out who we got to put a game plan together, we'll be able to hit the reset button. It's a wide-open region. Anybody can win it. We just want to play really, really well next week."
Highlands is still going to the 9th Region Tournament for the first time since 2014. The last time the Bluebirds won a game in the region tournament came by a 71-52 score over St. Henry in the region quarterfinals on March 4, 2009.